Staying Connected in the US

Note: AT&T recently changed their Go Phone plans, and the information here isn't correct. If you want a "daily" type pay-as-you-go plan, and want data, then AT&T has nothing for you. Their new options are absolutely ridiculous.

I have been travelling back and forth to Kentucky regularly for nearly five years. In the early years I would try and stop to eat at Burger King, the only chain that consistently had WiFi at that time. I would get off the highway, order my meal, and quickly check my email on my Windows Mobile phone. Even then I had long given up on trying to use Pocket Internet Explorer to check my favourite sites.
Apart from the occasional fast food/Internet fix I would typically just accept that I was going to be out of touch for my weekend dashes to Kentucky. Just answering the phone would cost me $4, and then another buck or two per minute after the first minute.
Eventually my Sweetie (now my wife) got high-speed Internet and, using Skype, it was easier to stay connected. We married in 2010 and still travel to visit her parents who live in eastern Kentucky and use dial-up to connect. So much for high-speed.
In the fall of 2010 I switched away from Telus as my cell provider and tried out Wind Mobile. I know not everyone has had the best experience with Wind, but it has been great for my family. One big advantage is using the phone in the States. Wind charges 25 cents per minute for using the phone in the States, and no additional "roaming charge". It's still not cheap enough that you want to have extended conversations, but I don't have to worry about answering my phone to talk for a couple of minutes.
This helped quite a bit but we soon found out that we were limited to T-Mobile coverage and sadly much of eastern Kentucky isn't covered. I already had an unlocked phone so the next challenge was to figure out which US pay-as-you-go provider was the best choice for us.
AT&T's GoPhone service has a $2 per day service for unlimited calls within the US, 19 cents per minute to Canada, and unlimited texting in the US and Canada. You only have to pay the $2 on the days you actually use the phone, and if you add $25 at a time the balance doesn't expire for 90 days.
As for data, earlier this year AT&T updated their data packages for GoPhone to include 10MB for $5, 100MB for $15, and 500MB for $25. This isn't exactly what I would call cheap, but honestly I find that checking my email, some web pages, Twitter, and Google+ only uses about 25 to 30MB over a few days. It's definitely enough to stay connected. It isn't enough for streaming audio or video, but that isn't realistic in the hills of Kentucky anyway. I end up on AT&T's EDGE (2G) network in Lee County Kentucky and typically see speeds around 200 Kilobit per second. That is about 5 times faster than dial-up; slow but usable for non-streaming types of applications.
Smartphones have also improved by incredible amounts in the last five years. I switched to an Android phone when I switched to Wind. Most of my online activities can be done easily on my phone, but I can even use my phone as a WiFi hotspot if necessary. This entire blog was typed on my phone using the Blogger app.
As for Wind in the States, my wife's phone, with the Wind SIM card still installed, actually registered on AT&T's network this past weekend. We looked at each other surprised when her phone rang at her parents' place. Maybe Wind has updated their US partnerships.
Staying connected while traveling in the States has become progressively easier over the last five years. Hopefully things keep getting better.

Are you a Mac or PC?

The one question that IT support staff (or anyone considered to be "computer savvy") consistently hear is "Mac or PC?" Unfortunately, this question is also all-to-frequently answered with one or the other, and the reasoning more often than not is defended with a religious zeal. I have heard just about every argument imaginable about why one entire platform is "better" than the other. Unfortunately, the arguments really aren't about the entire platform, but rather focus on a very special use-case scenario that will only affect a tiny number of people.

When I see the tools that most "bleeding edge" educators are recommending, they tend to be Internet-based services moreso than actual hardware or traditional software tools. Anyone reading this has, no doubt, heard the term "the cloud", and probably understands that the essence of "the cloud" is Internet-based services, most of which take the form of web-based applications.

Even when looking at actual hardware and software tools that are either commonly found in education or are recommended by educators, you will notice that they are, in most cases, available for or supported by either platform. SMART, Livescribe, iPad/iPods, and Microsoft Office come to mind here.

What is frustrating is that even those educators who encourage the use of Internet-based services are among those convincing others to "make the switch" to Macs. It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that someone who has always used Windows should purchase a Mac laptop, the least expensive of which is $1000, just so they can run web-based applications, PowerPoint, or SMART Notebook.

This is a list of the products and services that I have seen used, taught, or recommended in the educational environment in the last year. This is by no means an exhaustive list, because there have been so many web-based tools referenced in this last year I cannot possibly remember them all.
  • iPads / iPods
  • Google+, Docs, Sites
  • Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel)
  • Blogs (various)
  • Ning
  • pearltrees
  • timetoast
  • Skype
  • delicious
  • screenr
  • Prezi
  • SlideRocket
  • SMART (Notebook)
  • YouTube

There isn't a single item on that list that requires a Mac or a Windows machine specifically.

Although it may seem that I am arguing against purchasing Macs, I honestly am not. I would not try to convince someone to "make a switch". If you have always used Macs, then by all means, continue using them because you will be more comfortable using a Mac than trying to switch. If you have always used Windows, continue using Windows and don't buy into the "Mac is better" hype.

Asus Transformer Tablet - HDMI, Apps, and Flash

Before I talk about the HDMI, apps, and Flash experiences, I want to touch on a few points and discoveries made over the course of the week I have used the Transformer.

First, I noticed that I was constantly having to charge the tablet. On a full charge, it would definitely last for my use during a day, but the battery would continue to drain even while not in use.  I have left the iPad for days without use and it generally loses very little of its charge. It is an interesting comment however that my iPad does regularly go days without being used.

I did find a setting to disable WiFi when the screen is off or if the tablet is not plugged in. This is not the default option, and I found it curious that it wasn't. After enabling the WiFi power off feature, the stand-by battery use improved dramatically, losing only 1% overnight. Unfortunately, when I tried going online, the wireless would not connect. I opened the WiFi settings and found that the WiFi seemed to be stuck in some sort of loop of turning on and off. I ended up having to restart the tablet to get back online. Perhaps that's why it's not the default setting.

I am getting better at typing on the keyboard dock. I do not believe it was a firmware issue, but just my normal method of typing. You do need to be firm with the keys. This is a bit of a challenge for my large hands on the small keys, and definitely slows down my typing. The other problem I faced was constantly touching the touch pad beneath the keyboard. This would end up moving the cursor around on me while I was typing. Fortunately there is a button on the keyboard to disable the touch pad.

The differences between Android for phones (currently Gingerbread) and for tablets (Honeycomb) are surprisingly minor. I wasn't sure what to expect considering Google has kept them separate. I know that the two will be merged into a single OS for both platforms with the next major Android release, Ice Cream Sandwich.

I did manage to track down a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable and connected the Transformer to an HDMI-equipped LCD projector in a classroom. When I first connected it to the wall jack, nothing happened and I started searching for the answer of how to enable the HDMI output. All results indicated that it should work automatically. I wasn't terribly surprised that it worked just fine with the short cable connected directly to the projector rather than using the wall jack which has a 50' cable running up the wall and across the ceiling. I have experienced a similar situation in the past connecting a phone up to wall jack RCA connections. Small devices, including tablets just can't drive a signal over longer cables.

We need wireless AV soon. Having to tether portable devices to projectors is bad enough, but not being able to use the existing wall jacks for installed equipment is frustrating.

Once connected, the Transformer did an amazing job with the movie. There isn't much to say beyond that. I am not an audiophile, so I don't really have any comments about the audio quality. The movie looked great.

I mentioned in my earlier post that the Transformer included Polaris Office. The presentation app in Polaris is really quite usable. You can create basic slides, and even insert photos directly from the tablet's cameras. Showing the presentation over HDMI was as easy as plugging in the HDMI cable.

The document and spreadsheet apps were equally capable, but obviously all of the apps were very simple compared to a full Office suite. Files were saved in Microsoft Office format (pre-Office 2007 format), so opening them up in another program is easy enough (especially thanks once again to the microSD/SD slots). The interface between the three apps was simple and consistent. I was pleasantly surprised, and even looked for it in the Market on my phone. I have learned that it is presently not available on the Market but rather it is sold directly to OEM's like Asus. That is too bad.

It was easy finding educational apps on the Android Market. There is an education category that you can browse through, or you can search. It wasn't difficult to find apps for spelling, math, language, art, and science. Much like with Apple's App Store, there seems to be a huge amount of apps, most of which I'm sure are not particularly great. Remember to always check reviews.

I did test out the Animal Book app which is similar to an iOS app I have on the iPad and it worked quite well. A class schedule app that I tried was a different story. It didn't seem to offer any functionality that isn't provided in the default calendar app, other than showing a background of a blackboard. I wonder how long it will be before children don't even understand what the blackboard is. I also tried a Flashcard app, and a How to Draw app. The Flashcard app was pretty good. The How to Draw app just had a handful of specific things that it would show you how to draw step-by-step.

The final thing I wanted to check was just how good the Flash support is on the Transformer. SMART Notebook Express ( is a full Flash-based application, not just a simple ad or animation.

The first challenge was opening a file. When choosing to open an existing file, I was presented with some sort of "Upload" screen that did not have any files to choose from, and no way to browse for files saved on the tablet. Using the File menu, there is another option to open a file from a URL. I saved a file to my file server's web share, and was able to open it in Notebook Express.

The file did open, and the various elements did seem to work. It was difficult to tell for sure though, because everything responded so slowly that I lost patience and gave up. So, while I can say that Notebook Express seems to work, it is far from usable on a tablet at this point. I do not have any inside information, and do not want to start any rumours here, but it is my guess that SMART is likely working on stand-alone apps. If that is truly the case, hopefully they have Android in their sights and not just iOS.

Overall, my experience with the Transformer was positive. Although it would be extremely difficult to claim that it is "better" than the iPad, it can definitely compete. If I personally was choosing between them, the Transformer has more of the features and capabilities that I am looking for.

Asus Transformer Tablet

I received the Asus Transformer Tablet on Friday (September 30) from Asus for a 30-day evaluation. This is a tablet based on Android 3.2 (Honeycomb). Asus included the keyboard accessory with the tablet as well.

My first impressions were mostly positive. I have used an iPad for roughly seven months, and I definitely liked the feel and styling of the Transformer much more than the iPad. There were a couple of features that immediately appealed to me. There is an HDMI connection, and a microSD slot. MicroSD cards are very cheap and are an excellent way to expand storage of a device and transfer files between different devices.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the charging/docking connector. This is a proprietary connector, and I don't really want to think about how difficult it might be in the future to find replacements. I'm sure it will be possible to order them online for a long time, but it won't be quite as easy as finding an iPod/iPad cable.

Other than those ports, the Transformer has a power button, volume rocker, headphone jack, and front and rear facing cameras.

I was pretty excited about the screen. Apple's choice of a 4x3 display on the iPad seemed so strange in a world moving toward widescreen. I never understood the push for widescreen, but I never saw it as something worth fighting either. Pick your battles.

As soon as I turned on the screen, some of the excitement faded. There was a considerable amount of backlight bleed. That is unfortunate on a device that seems ideal for watching movies. During regular use it isn't apparent, but it is noticeable during dark scenes in movies. At least getting the movie on the Transformer was ridiculously simple using a microSD card.

From my own experience, I know that my primary use for the iPad was web browsing, so I connected to the network and fired up the browser. Browsing on the Transformer was a significantly better experience than on the iPad. Pages loaded quickly, and didn't suffer from the checkerboard background I see on the iPad whenever I scroll through a page too quickly. Flash also worked quite well, but I have to confess that I use FlashBlock in Firefox on the desktop because most Flash elements are ads. Still, it's nice to know that Flash works well.

Next I started to explore the apps included in the Transformer. There is an office app (Polaris Office) for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. I will definitely try using that app later. One app that caught my eye was Movie Studio. I fired it up and started to play. I tried to capture some video from the cameras and quickly discovered the first real problem with the Transformer. The camera app would constantly crash. I tried restarting, but as soon as I fired up the camera app again, it crashed again.

I moved on and checked some of the differences between Honeycomb and Gingerbread (I have an Android phone running Gingerbread). While doing this, I noticed that there was an update available for the tablet. I applied the update and upon restart thought I would try the Movie Studio app again. This time it worked great! It isn't a full editing suite, but it is usable for producing simple movies for YouTube. You can clip and combine videos, and apply some transitions between the clips.

After playing with this basic functionality, I took the keyboard dock out of the box and connected the Transformer. The keys have a good feel, but they are a little too close together for my big hands. The dock includes two USB ports for connecting external storage. I tried connecting my Android phone, but the phone just seemed to charge from the ports and wouldn't detect that it should enable USB storage mode. I also tried connecting an old 500GB USB LaCie hard drive, but it didn't seem to be detected by the Transformer. A regular USB key worked just fine.

I tried to use the keyboard dock to type this blog, and I did manage to type some of this on the tablet. Unfortunately, I found that if I typed too quickly that some characters would get dropped. From there it became apparent that I have as much trouble with Android as I do with iOS accurately placing a cursor back to where I need make a correction. I guess that's my big hands again. I tried to continue with the on-screen keyboard. I definitely prefer the Transformer's on-screen keyboard over the iPad's. It includes the number keys above the letters so it isn't necessary to switch back-and-forth between virtual keyboards just to get to the number keys.

Eventually I decided to finish typing the blog on my desktop. The Android notifications let me know that there was a firmware update for the keyboard dock, so I'll have to try typing on it again in my follow-up.

I want to test the Transformer out in the following ways:
  1. Create a presentation using Polaris office and connect to an HDMI projector.
  2. Try watching a movie on an HDMI projector.
  3. Test out some educational apps that I have downloaded from the Android Market.
  4. Try using SMART's Flash-based Notebook Express on the tablet.
Now I just need to track down a mini-HDMI adapter.

The Greatest Presentation Tool Ever

One of the trends I have noticed in educational technology is an obsession with trying to find the perfect presentation tool.

PowerPoint is the traditional presentation tool. It has been around longer than most schools have had LCD projectors. There are really two key things about Powerpoint that have caused educators to start looking elsewhere for a better option. The first is price. In Ontario, the Ministry licensing of Corel WordPerfect Suite created an opportunity for schools to take advantage of an alternative presentation tool at no cost. Over the last several years, other free options like, Prezi, and Google Presentations have also created opportunities to avoid the costs associated with PowerPoint.

The second thing driving people to look for an alternative to PowerPoint is that it is perceived as boring. It is a linear presentation tool, with a collection of transitions and animations that everyone is familiar with. Microsoft has added various features over the years, but it really is a basic presentation tool. To make matters worse, so many people use PowerPoint that it is common to see some of the included visual themes repeatedly.

Some of the PowerPoint alternatives really fail to offer any unique feature. They just happen to be lower cost, and in many cases free. and Corel Presentations come to mind.

Other alternatives do offer more unique features, but I would not go so far as to say they are "better" than PowerPoint.

I know that the argument for Prezi is that it is for the non-linear creation and presentation of information, but even Prezi has the basic functionality of creating a linear path through the presentation. Honestly, interactive presentation tools like SMART Notebook or Hyperstudio have a much more sophisticated method for creating non-linear presentations, and even during the creative process, it is not necessary to construct pages or slides in a linear way using those tools.

SlideRocket is the latest presentation tool to make an appearance in our school. It features a much more sophisticated slide management system than the other tools, but that feature is just as likely to become a liability to your presentation. Although I absolutely encourage collaborative work, especially among students, collaborative work on a presentation makes your own personal presentation much less reliable when someone else has the ability to change one or more of your slides. The presentation tool in Google Docs can be susceptible to this as well when taking advantage of the document sharing feature.

Do not forget, when it comes to presentations, your audience is there to gather information and learn. Trying to impress the audience with fancy transitions, animations, and gadgets only serves to help your audience remember the tool you were using more than the message. Although Sir Ken Robinson's talk on rethinking education was already popular, the subsequent animation by the RSA caused some educators to ask "how did they do that" rather than consider the actual message being delivered.

Finally, as a Systems Administrator, I want to share this. Constantly trying something new creates challenges for you and for the IT support staff who often haven't heard of your fantastic new presentation tool until you show up on the doorstep. Do not be surprised when they roll their eyes at "the best presentation tool, ever". It's something they have heard before.

Have the PowerPoint version on your key.