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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Read Aloud: Text to Speech Extension

Recently, a teacher asked for a recommended text to speech tool for Chromebooks.  Of course, a Chromebook means it has to be a Chrome extension and can't be a program to install.  While there are many to be found, most text to speech extensions fall into one of two categories.  The first: they are very useful but cost for their full capability (a popular example is Read & Write for Chrome).  The second: they are free but offer limited usability and/or functionality.

I hadn't looked in a while, so I was glad to take a peek at the Chrome Store to see what was available now.   After playing with several and reading Chrome Store reviews, I found one that I can easily recommend: Read Aloud.  It is free with no hidden charges.

Note the bullhorn extension icon for Read Aloud in the upper right.

While some text to speech (TTS) tools may excel in an area or two, Read Aloud ranks highly across multiple aspects:
  • It is easy to use!
  • It grabs text from the website, simplifies the font/formatting, and puts it in an easy to read “box”; it then highlights text as it reads (although in settings, you can turn highlighting off).
  • Multiple male and female voices are available in a fairly normal “American” accent.  These are included at no charge.  (Many TTS tools have only one voice with an English affect, or additional voices cost additional money.)
  • It works on Google Docs.  (Many do not!)
  • You can adjust speed and pitch.  (Many only have this option for a premium/paid version.)
  • It is one of the few TTS tools that can read a PDF that is opened inside a tab of your Chrome browser. 
  • It is important to note that while typical websites should be fine, Read Aloud will NOT work inside a learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology or Edmodo.  However, this is true of nearly all TTS extensions (such as Read & Write), paid or free.

You can get to the settings (gear icon) by hitting the bullhorn icon, then hitting stop to end reading the text aloud. Here you can change the voice with dropdown choices, use the sliding bars to adjust speed and pitch, and turn text highlighting on or off.  You can also test what this sounds and looks like without using an actual website page.

Do you recommend a different text to speech Chrome extension that is free?  Share in the Comments below.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Student Journals, Personalized Learning Plans and More: The Power of HyperDocs

Happy New Year 2019!

Are you needing students to make a journal, as well as see and possibly comment on each other’s blog?  Finding a tool with easy visibility and simple user interface inside of some kind of protected space can be difficult to find, in addition to doing all of it for free.  (While Blogger is an excellent free Google tool -- obviously I'm a fan! -- I know it is blocked by some districts due to monitoring and privacy concerns, or considered to be too complicated for their younger students.)
One way to have safe, free, and easy blogging, especially with younger students, would be to utilize and organize Google Docs in some kind of “HyperDoc” stylized fashion.*  How much you do, versus how much the students do, will determine the amount of heartache and labor involved to set it up.   The steps below assume a higher capability/age of student, perhaps upper elementary or older (which will make the least amount of work on you); adjust and scaffold the work flow for K-2 students as needed.
  1.  Create a Google Doc that serves as a journaling “template.”  Be sure to make a space/field at top for them to type their name and a way to date each of their entries. Make it a sharable URL as "view only."  Copy the URL.
  2. Do the “force copy trick” with the URL so that, when the URL is clicked, it forces the user to copy to their own Drive.
  3. Provide this “force copy URL” inside of your learning management system (LMS). As students click the link and save the copy to their Drive, make sure they change the words “Copy of” inside the title of the Doc to “First and Last Name” (for example, “Copy of Journal Log” becomes “ADAM WATSON Journal Log”).
  4. Have each student open the sharing link on their new Doc.  Make sure the permission is “[District Domain] Users Only, view and comment.”  The student should copy this URL.
  5. Create a simple Google Form for students to submit responses; again, link the URL in a LMS.  Ask for their names, but make sure the Form automatically collects their email addresses.   The students should paste their journal’s sharable URL as an answer to one of the Form’s questions.  (Note: organizationally you may want to create a different Form for each class; the reasons why will become obvious in the next steps.)
  6. Within the responses tab of your Form, make sure you create a Sheet to go with the Form’s responses.  You now have ONE spreadsheet that has links to ALL of the journals of the students.   Now, make the Sheet “view only” and provide that link inside a LMS for your students to access.
  7. By clicking on the Sheet’s URL, you now have an easy way for students to access each other’s Journals and read them (without the students, or you, creating hundreds of sharing permissions).   Additionally, if they Comment, they will be identified (no anonymous comments allowed) and some privacy is maintained as students have it restricted to visibility only within your domain's users.   By having “view and comment” instead of edit rights will also prevent students from intentionally or unintentionally writing over each other or even nuking each other's journal with deletions.   Of course, multiple Sheets also make it easier for you to look at the various journals class by class.  Bonus #1:  collecting the journal URLs in this way avoids receiving all of those inbox-cluttering sharing email notifications.  Bonus #2: the Form and Sheet  automatically organizes the journal links without you spending time creating multiple Google Folders and organizing all of the student journal Docs inside them.
  8. One last step/tip: if students are to respond to each other's journals, make sure students understand not only what a valuable “uptake” Comment is (beyond “that is great!”), but also make the expectations clear.  Should they Comment on someone else’s journal twice a week?  Two different journals, or two Comments on the same journal ok?  Should they eventually Comment on all student journals at least once? Do they need to reply to the Comments made by other students?  Will they be assessed qualitatively (do you have a rubric?), quantitatively, or both?

Note that using this same workflow could be applied in other ways you want students to make a copy of a template, share it with you to review, and possibly have others give feedback.  One example could be a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) that students initiate, periodically reflect and edit, and share with you (and their advisors).  And speaking of personalized learning, if you want to really create an intricate, HyperDoc work flow that could track mastery per standard and per student as well as link to archival evidence, I recommend taking a look at my “SCANMoST” directions.   While SCANMoST was originally created to optimize the 2017 integration of Google Drive into Schoology, it could easily be adapted for Google Classroom or any LMS by utilizing the same “force copy”/template work flow. 

* "Stylized" is an important qualifier here.  I should definitely point out that HyperDocs are a larger construction than merely a heavily hyperlinked online document; as this article by Jennifer Gonzalez defines very well, a HyperDoc is a "digital document . . . where all components of a learning cycle have been pulled together into one central hub."  The potential impact on pedagogy and personalized learning go way beyond just providing a helpful organization structure for a teacher.  Nevertheless, the further you read into my entry, the closer you get to the student-centered "hubs" that would meet Gonzalez's definition of a HyperDoc.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Share Fair 2019 Tickets Now Available!

Our fifth annual Share Fair (#SCsharefair) will be on February 20, 2019!  This FREE professional development, open to educators outside of Shelby County, will have sessions on edtech as well as competency-based education successes and strategies. 

To celebrate five years, I have launched a new website here.   The site has pages for Frequently Asked Questions (recommended for first-timers in order to understand the conference structure), Multimedia (pictures and video from previous Share Fairs), and an Archive for press clippings and past presenters/sessions.  In order to register for your free tickets, check out the site's Event page.  The Event page also has our upcoming presenters and session descriptions.

Mark your calendars, get your tickets, and see you in there in February!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Google Science Journal

Three and a half years ago, I wrote a blog entry titled "Garlic Necklace, Not a Silver Bullet."  I discussed how we need to embrace the messiness of multiple solutions instead of trying to find the perfect one.  This is especially true if you are trying the seek a single student edtech device that you hope achieves all goals: "While your 1:1 device may be one kind of device, you still have access to laptop carts, iPads, and computer labs (with large desktop hard drives and powerful processors) for specialized work.  And speaking of devices that do specialized work, let's not forget that many students already carry one in their pocket: a smartphone."

That last part -- how do we find ways to integrate instead of ban the powerful microprocessor many students carry around in their pocket? -- echoed in my head when Heidi Neltner recently introduced me to a new mobile Google app, Science Journal.  It is available for iOS and Android and requires a smartphone or tablet; according to their site, it will also work for "some" Chromebooks that can install Android apps.  But once you get past the device and installation hurdle, it is free and an amazing resource for science classrooms.

How does it work?  After installing Science Journal, you will need to give it permission to access your device's microphone and camera.  You will also need to state your age, as Google wants users to be 13 and older; it only asks for this once on the first time you open the app.  (This strikes me as a bit odd, since no personal data can be collected, as no account creation is possible and you cannot yet link it to a Google Drive account. That said, it does collect and send anonymous data unless you turn this off in the app's settings.)

The app starts with a "Welcome to Science Journal" experiment example you can play with, edit and archive.  (Similar to Google Keep, you can "clear the screen" by archiving experiments that can be retrieved later, or of course you can delete them.)  Creating a new experiment is as easy as hitting the purple "+" button in the lower right.

Once inside an experiment, you can edit the title at the top by clicking the top right pencil.  The top half of the screen is where data and notes are captured.  The bottom half (which can be slid up to take up the entire screen) is where you have four icon choices.  The first allows you to make journal text entries.  The third allows you to take pictures; with the fourth, you can insert images.  The second icon is where the magic happens, as this is where you choose a sensor reading tool.

You have the following sensor tools to choose from: Ambient Light (lux), Sound Intensity (dB), Pitch (Hz), Linear Accelerometer (m/s squared), Accelerometers for X, Y and Z axis, Barometer (hPa), Compass (degrees), and Magnometer.

By utilizing your device's various sensors -- accelerometers, light sensor, microphone, compass -- Science Journal allows you to see real time data as you move the device or expose it to sound, light and other stimuli.   By hitting the icon in the lower left black band, you can take a picture "screenshot" of the data which gets added to your experiment's top half data collection area.  By hitting the red button, you can make a playable "recording" of data that is added to your collection area.  By sweeping up and hitting a grey "+" button underneath, you can open another "card" for a different sensor reading tool to happen simultaneously.

Last but not least, you can make some adjustments to the sensor reading tool by hitting the three dots on the right of the sensor tool name.  One of the options is to "enable audio."  This creates some pronounced auditory feedback as the data input changes!  (You also hear this in the data "recordings" discussed above.)

One word of caution.   Speaking to colleagues about this app, a common concern discussed is students getting . . . ahem . . . so excited about science that they risk damaging their device as they enthusiastically gather data.   While protecting school devices is important, you also want to be able to tell an unhappy parent if little Johnny breaks his iPhone that you had a thorough class conversation about proper management and care of technology.  Even better: if you are asking for students to install the app on their own devices, a letter home stating your purpose and getting parent permission first may be a good proactive choice.  (You know what?  That 13 and older age requirement may now be making more sense.)

How could you use it?  The ability to use this app in a science classroom or lab (individually, in collaborative groups, or in a station rotation) is pretty self-explanatory.  The key is that Science Journal empowers students to be experiential, inquiry-based learners.  I imagine this app could be helpful in the prototyping and early research stage of Design Thinking.   The journal entries jotted in the app could be the beginnings of deeper reflections or detailed lab reports, and would then be copied and pasted into other places such as Google Docs.  And why not have a cross-content PBL with science and music?  The band OK Go has an educational site full of "inspiring tools for playful learning," and some of their experiments (like this one) specifically utilize the Science Journal app as a music making tool!

Remember that you can get teacher resources, experiment ideas, and other help on the Science Journal site.

Downsides?  I wish Science Journal could work as a web-based product, perhaps through a Chrome Extension, but keep in mind that anything bigger than a tablet begins to get unwieldy as you start flipping, spinning and moving your device around to take readings.  More importantly, I hope that it soon allows integration into your Google Drive account, so your experiments could at least be saved to the cloud and possibly shared and published.

If you are using Science Journal, share your stories in the Comments below!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


While there are certainly very effective ways to have classroom discussion the analog way -- look no further than a well done Socratic circle -- digital discourse can be uniquely powerful.  It has always been a particular specialized edtech interest of mine, going back to my U of L graduate classes in the early 2000's.  As one of my action research projects, I gathered data on college students who raised hands in class to answer questions versus their participation in online forums.  Perhaps not surprisingly, while nearly all students interacted digitally, "real" discussion in class was limited to roughly half the classroom, and only a handful of students tended to dominate the conversation.  Sound familiar?

Besides making the simple amount of participation more equitable, other advantages of digital discourse became readily apparent:

  • Because students could think and even revise their questions and observations before hitting send, the responses can be a bit more thoughtful.  However, responders can also be "trigger-happy" and the quality can be just the opposite, so culture and expectations are key here.
  • Digital opportunities opened up asynchronous as well as "real-time" opportunities to talk, expanding discussion beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  • Dominating personalities in real life become more flattened -- quiet students could sound as "loud" as their more outgoing peers.
  • Students more naturally talk directly to each other, rather than through the teacher.
  • In a real time online discussion, everyone can "talk at once," something not possible without shouting and chaos in real life.
  • Digital discourses can often be easily archived or exported.
  • Since a digital discourse creates a physical artifact, it can be formatively assessed, whether with informal feedback or with rubrics that indicate how students are meeting mastery of speaking and listening standards.
One of my favorite and free digital discourse tools was TodaysMeet.  It was around long enough (ten years!) that I actually used it as a classroom teacher for one of my videotaped National Boards lessons.   Alas, it finally closed down several months ago.  Since then, I've searched for alternatives and finally found one that is as simple (and free!) as TodaysMeet -- YoTeach!, a project of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  (More about their "Pedagogic & Active Learning Mobile Solutions" here.) 

How does it work?  Once you go to the site, you can make a chat room in seconds.  Type your room's name and hit the "Make Room" button.  Share the room's URL, and people can join the chat instantly -- no log in or user account required, they just pick a nickname.  While technically users are anonymous, two tips: explain to students that the only way they will get credit for their contributions is if they use their real names, and advise them to use common sense digital citizenship protocol (never say anything you wouldn't in a public space with Grandma listening).

YoTeach! does offer some very helpful features.

  • By checkmarking "Avoid Search," the room will not show up in public searches, and gives you a bit more privacy.  I highly recommend this!
  • "Enable Admin Features" is also highly recommended.  By creating a password for you (unique to the room you are about to create), you will be able to do some moderation features such as mute or remove a student, get student participation statistics, switch from a chat to a voting mode (perhaps as part of a reflection at the end of the day, where students indicate the most insightful or important contributions), and more.   The only way you can make sure a room can be deleted is if you enable admin features from the beginning; otherwise, the room and its history will linger indefinitely.
  • "Room Entry Password" is another security feature to protect your students. Without a password, anyone with the chat room's URL can join. 
  • In the chat room itself, participants can do more than just text responses. You can also share pictures with annotations, or use a mini-whiteboard feature to "draw." 
  • You can export a transcript of the chat as a PDF.

Richard Byrne, edtech extraordinaire behind Free Technology For Teachers and Practical Edtech, did a great screencast video overview of YoTeach! (5:15):

How could you use it?   Here are three ideas:
  1. Create a backchannel chat while watching a video.  The opportunities for students to post questions and insights, as well as the teacher probing and clarifying, can create a rich, engaging experience beyond just passive viewing.
  2. Create a virtual after-hours office, where you help students during a scheduled time slot.  Even better would be student leaders running the chatroom doing the same function.
  3. Conduct the equivalent of a "Twitter Chat" at a certain time after class on a particular topic. This could be a remediation opportunity, enrichment, or even a flipped learning experience of content that will directly lead to work in class the next day.
Downsides?  Without the teacher having a login account, there is no way to easily save all of your created chatrooms.   (This was true of the earliest version of TodaysMeet as well.) If you close the browser without somehow saving the chatroom URL, you may have to start all over.  I'm also not sure if the ability to search "public" random chatrooms is helpful from a student perspective, since it may lead to more distractions than anything useful for a classroom setting.  In fairness, however, once a student joins a specific chat room the search is not readily apparent.  Lastly,  I wish rooms were "" (more like how TodaysMeet worked) instead of the current unusual URL address configuration.  

I wish for digital and analog discourse to happen frequently in your classroom!

Note: special thanks to Noel Gnadinger, my old South Oldham High School colleague and librarian par excellence who led me to YoTeach! in one of her Facebook posts.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Google Keep

Sorry for the long blog break!   With Shelby students back to school since August 1, I have been busy helping to onboard multiple new digital platforms for our district.   Let's break the silence with a discussion of one of the newest members of the G Suite apps, Google Keep

Google Keep is a free tool optimized for making short notes, and like the rest of Google Drive, saves it to the cloud for easy access across devices.  At first, I didn't jump to use it -- I have been a fervent fan of Evernote back to my classroom teaching days (up to nearly 2000 notes as of this entry, if you must know!) and wasn't convinced in what ways Keep filled a needed niche.  But I've grown fond of it, not least because of how others have demonstrated its utility to me.  I've discussed Keep in several presentations over the past year, and it is one of the tools I'm most likely to hear about from attendees months later.   So with that in mind, I thought it time to give it an Edtech Elixir blog entry!

How does it work?  You can access your Keep three major ways: by opening a new browser tab and going directly to, inside of a Google Doc by going to Tools > Keep notepad (only for business or education accounts), and lastly, through its mobile app.  The mobile app has some unique features; more on that in a moment.

When looking at your full Keep inside a browser, you can see your notes as tiles that continue downward as the newest notes start at the top.  (You can also "pin" notes to keep them at the top.) Creating a new note can quickly happen by utilizing the bar at top.  Various options appear as you make the note or as you edit it later, including attaching pictures, making a simple drawing, or creating a checkbox "to do" list.

From the left side, you can quickly navigate to certain notes.  Examples include a specific label, just your reminders, or notes you have archived.  Archiving can be a good way of clearing the field of notes that are no longer useful or relevant, without actually "trashing" them.
Notes can have "Reminders" added.  What is intriguing is that you can choose to make it time based (which will tie into your Google Calendar and remind you accordingly), or you can make it place based.  With Google Keep as an app on your phone, that means you will be pinged once you get within so many feet of a place.  An example might be getting reminded to buy milk once you hit the parking lot of your grocery.

Notes can have collaborators. This allows one or more people to have real-time editing rights.  It's important to point out that currently there are no "view only" options for notes, so an editing partner can do their worst and there is no function like "version history" to easily revert to a previous incarnation.

As ways to organize your notes, you can change the color of the note itself, or add "Labels."  Colors can create a personal visual cue for certain types of notes.  Labels can create a system of tags that allow you to sort your notes into categories by utilizing the Keep navigation menu on the left.

At the bottom of the note, the "three dots" menu gives you several more options:

If you upload a picture, you can grab its text so you can edit and manipulate.  From playing around with this feature, it is remarkable how accurate it works!  (An example is below.)

Under the same three dot menu, you can also "Copy to Google Docs."  If you feel like the note is beginning to chafe under the restraints of Keep, this is an easy way to grow it with a quick export.  From a writing perspective, the brainstorm ideas or first paragraph prompt responses of a Keep note can become a full blown Doc when the time is right.

The Keep mobile app allows you to view, sort, and create notes much in the same way as the desktop version.  However, there are several features unique to the mobile version.  Drawing (either on a blank canvas, or annotating a picture) is a much easier interface on a phone or tablet.  Voice recording is only possible on the mobile app.  On the desktop, you can upload images, but the mobile app integrates the device's camera so you can take pictures.

Last but not least, there is a Google Keep Chrome extension.  This is especially useful if you want to quickly clip and save URLs of sites to your Keep.

Back in June, I was a facilitator for the #KyGoDigital Northern Kentucky Regional.  It made a little history as the first statewide virtual PD event.  In one of our breakout sessions, I discussed Google Keep during a Hangout on Air (37:00).  It can serve as an overview and live demo of the tool:

How could you use it?   For those that love Post-Its, Keep is a tool that naturally takes that same "quick note" idea and expands the concept digitally, allowing for better organization and making it nearly impossible to lose your thoughts.

My wife and I both have Android phones and personal Gmail accounts, so we have found Keep to be an easy way to make collaborative shopping lists.  One of us can add items as soon as we think of them, which the other will see in real time; as a person shops and checks off items, it's also easy to see their progress through the store!   For school, consider how you and your colleagues can also share similar lists of things to get or tasks to accomplish.

By creating an individual note for each student you mentor or need to confer with, then collaborating on that note with the student, you can create a great system for capturing conferring notes and seeing what the current goals are.  Collaboration allows for it to be a virtual dialogue.  In theory, this note could eventually be exported to a Google Doc at the end of the year as a longer record of the student's progress and growth.  What a wonderful way to track and monitor personalized learning!

If you want to capture learning (either in pictures, observation notes, and/or voice recordings), Google Keep on a mobile device could be a great way of doing so.  This doesn't have to only be done by teachers!  Students with their own phones or tablets could do it for themselves.   The students could then use the Keep artifacts as a starting point for portfolio collections and deeper reflections.

Daniel Edelen, a former teacher at Shelby's Clear Creek Elementary, was one of the first to show me the instructional possibilities of Google Keep.  The following Facebook Live video (12:00) was from our 2017 Edtech Share Fair, where Mr. Edelen briefly describes how he used Keep with his students. (An excerpt of the video also appears in the #KyGoDigital session above, but here is the full presentation in better quality.)

Downsides?  The formatting of text is very limited -- not only are you unable to change a font or text size, but you cannot even bolden or italicize.  Without some kind of organization structure (pinning, color coding, labels, archiving), it may become unwieldy as you scroll and scroll through your growing notes.  I would like to see a "view only" sharing option to protect from the potential editing complications of adding collaborators.  However, in fairness to the tool, the best use of Keep recognizes that it is optimized for quick content creation and easy integration across your Google Drive cloud access; more lengthy or complicated documents would be better suited for Google Docs.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I love Evernote.  With my many years of crafting Notebooks and Tags to organize my digital life, as well as its robust content formatting and options, I will not give Evernote up any time soon.  Still, it's worth pointing out that I pay for the Evernote Premium features that allows, among other things, a significant increase of  material uploading capacity.   On the other hand, Keep is free, very user friendly, just one click away from your Google Drive, and easy for collaboration with colleagues and students.  I highly recommend taking some time to try it out!

How are you using Keep?  Are you a fan of Evernote or another cloud-based notetaking program?  Share in the Comments below.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Goodbye to Your Google Drive

Summer is looming, and the last day for students is either already here or coming soon.  It is also a natural time of transition.  Students and staff may be leaving the district, but they don't want to leave their oodles of Google files and folders behind.  Additionally, educators may be the owners of Google goodness that others will need access to after they are gone.  What to do?

Depending on your needs and situation, one or more of the following tips should help.

1.  Transfer ownership of your Google files and folders.   The process is simple to do (while perhaps tedious one file/folder at a time) and done in the same way you share viewing and editing rights in Google.  Keep in mind that there's no going back once you transfer, and it would be a good idea to give a heads up to your administration and the new owner what you're up to.  Also, for your educator/business account, you cannot transfer ownership to a personal account outside of your domain, or vice versa.  You can only transfer ownership between two domain accounts or between two personal accounts.

2.  Utilize Team Drives.  I go into detail about Team Drives in a previous blog entry,  but here are some highlights:

  • Any files and folders made by a member of a Team Drive remain in the Team Drive even if the  member who created the files/folders leaves.
  • Unlike individual Drives, Team Drives are easily accessible by your Google Administrators for your domain.  This can come in handy.  For example, say the creator of the Team Drive is the only person with "full access," and they leave the district.  Google Admin can still assign the "full access" rights to another member of the Team Drive, along with other management functions.
  • You can move your personal files, but not folders, into a Team Drive.  For more information and limitations on migrating files into a Team Drive, read here.

3.  Use Google Takeout to copy files and folders to your personal Drive.  This is an option if you have a G Suite Education/Business account.  (Those with personal Gmail accounts have options to download their data.)  It is a straightforward way to copy, not technically "move," the contents from one Drive to another.  There are two things to keep in mind.  First, while a G Suite for Education or Business account has virtually unlimited storage space, a personal (free) Gmail Drive does not.  Secondly, the transfer itself may take several days to complete; don't wait until the last day of your G Suite access to start the process!   The directions are pretty straightforward.  While logged into your G Suite account, go to this site and put in the account that should receive the data.  A verification code will be sent to that account's Gmail.  Once you get the code, enter it and the transfer can begin.

Have a happy, restful, and invigorating summer!

Update 6/20/18:  I discovered you cannot transfer ownership between a personal account and an educator/business Google domain account.  I added this information in #1.