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Do the Math, Online

Gsp_aWe’re frankly amazed by the scope of lessons and activities that math teachers create for their classes with Key Curriculum Press’s Geometer’s Sketchpad. The $40 program will soon be augmented with Key’s LessonLink, an online extension of the program that will contain 500 different lessons when the online service debuts in September. Aligned to popular textbooks and state math requirements, the lessons are aimed at grades 3 through 12 to help kids visually reinforce key spatial relationships and math concepts. Seeing really is believing, regardless of whether it’s showing 7-year olds that triangles have three sides or exploring trigonometry for high-schoolers. The service costs $119 per teacher for a 1-year school site license.

Big Screen on a Budget

Tx42f430s_b_2Think spending several thousands of dollars on a large-screen monitor for a classroom is expensive, outfitting an entire school or district with displays is nearly always budget buster. At $1,000 – about half the cost of comparable screen from Sony or Samsung – Westinghouse’s TX-42F430S provides a lot of display for the money.

A full-featured 42-inch LCD screen, it’s just as good as a computer monitor as it is as a TV. Based on Westinghouse’s 1080Pure technology, the TX-42F430S displays full high-definition programming as well as showing the output of a computer at up to a crisp 1,920 by 1,080 resolution.

The 42-inch display is big enough for most classrooms with about 20 kids; the company also sells a 47-inch version for larger rooms. With a 176-degree viewing angle, even those sitting on the sides of the front row will get a good view.

At just 6-inches thick, the monitor looks great mounted on a wall. The screen comes with a base for setting it up on a table, and its black frame and base will fit the décor of just about any classroom.

Tx42f430sThe back of the screen is chock full of connection ports, but most classrooms will only use one or two. Still, it’s good to know that there are 4 HDMI plugs for future use. Although the 10-watt speakers deliver surprisingly rich and full sound, it’s easy to hook up external audio.

Setting the TX-42F430S up is simple and most teachers won’t need to look at the instructions manual. Thanks to Westinghouse’s AutoSource technology, the screen can turn on by itself when an external DVD player is started. On the downside, it mysteriously changes inputs at random. Westinghouse is working on a software fix for the problem, and in the meantime I shut this feature off.

Over the course of two months, I used the screen for watching DVDs, TV programs and displaying the output of an HP notebook. It had even lighting, sharp imaging and more than enough brightness for leaving the lights on and the shades up for video-assisted lessons.

In normal use, the screen uses 230 watts of power, or an estimated annual cost of $43 per year, based on four hours of use daily over the school year. The screen’s E.Saver feature can cut its power use when not in use from 30-watts to below 1 watt. This can save more than $20 a year, but slows the TV’s start-up.

On the downside, the system emits annoying clicks and popping noises that the screen makes for a minute or so after turning it on. It takes a few seconds to change channels and the initial image of analog channels briefly stutters. Despite these quirks, the TX-42F430S is a winner at an unbeatable price that could teach Sony and Samsung a thing or two about school economics.

Westinghouse TX-42F430S

+ Inexpensive
+ Full HD resolution
+ Excellent assortment of input choices
+ Can cut electricity bill

- Clicks and pops when started up
- Image stutters when channel is changed

Christine: Linux will never be Windows


There are some mininotebooks in Europe that use Windows in this price range but none are available here. The closest thing to a Windows based mininotebook in this price range are a $550 model of the Asus EeePC and a $600 version of HP's Mini-Note 2133. The EeePC uses XP Home while the Mini-Note uses Vista Home.

The big thing that you'll miss if you get a Linux systems is your favorite applications. While you'll be able to use many, if not all, of your Windows files on a Linux application, the actual programs you'll use will be different. You'll probably use Open Office instead of Office and LightZone instead of Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.   

Whether or no a Linux system can prepare a child for the 21-st centruy workforce is debatable. The differences between the applications are pretty big, but they essentially do the same things in slightly different ways. I've sed several differentLinux notebooks and the software is jsut as reliable, and oten faster than what Windows has to offer. It does take a litte time to adjust to the Linux way of things, but many schools will find it worth it in order to save about $50 a machine.

Brian: What are the limitations of Linux-based laptops ?

Thanks, Brian. Are there any Windows-based models in the under $500 price range that you like? If most of these models are Linux-based, wouldn't that rule out a lot of applications for school use? Are these Linux-based laptops still truly preparing kids for 21st century learning if they aren't teaching them the same operating systems used in the business world?

Christine: Yes, there are good small notebooks, but ...

One of the most exciting and innovative areas in school technology of late is the current crop of small notebooks. It's an area that didn't exist a year ago, and now there are a dozen such machines available throughout the world.

Overall, these are systems that weigh 2 or 3 pounds and cost about $500, so they're perfect for small hands and small budgets. The typical school needing 200 notebooks could save something like $50,000, and that's not chicken feed. 

My two favorites are HP's 2133 Mini-Note and the Asus Eee PC. For basic tasks like email, Web work and some classroom applications these systems have more than enough power and good battery life. For instance, the EeePC and the Mini-Note can run for a full school day of stop and go computing.

As to performance, don't expect too much. In many cases they'll do everything that a teacher or administrator needs, but they're not going to blow you away with speed or graphics. Two things you might have to do without are Windows because many use inexpensive Linux instead and the peace of mind that a 3-year warranty provides.

Christine, the bottom line is that these are basic machines, but ones that should satisfy all but the most power-hungry users.

Hey Brian -- Should Admins Use Those Cheap Laptops?

I've been thinking about getting a cheap laptop to use for simple word processing and email, which got me thinking. Which one makes the most sense for business, if any? Like many administrators, I want something light, cheap and hardy that has the guts to tackle basic business functions. Have you seen any low-end laptops that fit that bill? Which models have you tested that really impressed you?

OLPC Goes Windows

Olpcxo2The love-hate relationship between MIT’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and Microsoft has shifted back towards romance with OLPC announcing that its XO school notebook will soon have a Windows XP option. Microsoft has spent a year adapting and squeezing the Windows code base so it would fit on the limited resources of the low-cost notebook. On the downside, it is said that the cost of the Windows version will raise the price tag to $200, double what the group’s original goal. Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder, said that there will also be dual-boot versions that can run either Linux or Windows.

Teacher Picks: Our Reviewer Tests Knowledge Adventure’s Activity Builder

Ka_landingpage_300rez_copy Our teacher-reviewer Diana Lawsky of Lincoln School in North Bergen, NJ, gives us her review of Knowledge Adventure’s Activity Builder. See more teacher picks on our Instructor website.

Description: The Activity Builder is an online product that allows teachers to customize activities for various subjects.  Teachers can create worksheets, games, letter cards, flash cards, puzzles, sentence strips, word wall cards, homework assignments, and tests.

Pros: I love the idea that the teacher can customize the work and the site is very easy to navigate. The home page is uncluttered and laid out in an easy to understand style.  The left side of the screen lists FAQs, Instructions, Manuals, and Contacts.  Under Manuals are sample activities to give you an idea of what the product can do.  This is a really helpful feature for the first-time user. The right side of the screen consists of buttons to take you to activity builders for Letters, Numbers, Pictures, and Words. There are also buttons that take you to your Saved Lists and Black Line Masters.

I looked at Pictures (which include math activities), Numbers, Words, and Masters.  Masters had pre-made, non-customizable activities that touched on various math subjects as bar graphs and base 10.  Under Pictures you could create an activity for lessons in shapes, clock, money, etc.  Selecting fractions in the Pictures section, I created flash cards and a cube for the students to make representing ½, 1/3, ¼.  The Words category lets you select Words students need to know in each subject.  What’s great about this category (and the picture category) is that there’s a district link included.  At the moment, there’s only CA and PA listed.  Within each state, there are links to grade levels.  This would be an amazing tool for teachers when all states are listed.  In the numbers category, a large number of activities can be created using 8 different math operations.  For subtraction, I created an old maid game, a write 3X each sheet, and a test.

Cons: As mentioned above, this product would be much more useful if it listed every state’s requirements (at least NJ’s!).   Also, using fractions as an example, I wasn’t able to create activities for anything besides ½, 1/3, ¼.  (Although I was able to create a huge number of activities for those three fractions.) But perhaps this has to do with the grade levels targeted.

How would you use this in the classroom? This is an extremely useful product.  I would use it for in class exercises, homework, to create flash cards, to create activities that students would enjoy, and to create tests.  It would also be good for enrichment.  Whenever students have free time, they could do a word search or a puzzle and reinforce whatever is being taught in the classroom.

Sky’s the Limit

Telescope If you’ve ever wanted to bring the sheer delight of astronomy and space exploration into your classroom, Microsoft makes it easy and free. The company’s Worldwide Telescope program uses Web 2.0 Visualization software to give classes guided tours of the cosmos. On top of explanatory videos, the site has a rich array of digital images of the sky taken by a variety of world’s telescopes. Just download the 20MB beta application (and Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 if you don’t already have it) and buckle your seatbelts because your class might make a quick stop at one of Saturn’s moons on its way to Andromeda and beyond. Like all software that’s still being developed, Worldwide Telescope has its quirks and at times it surprisingly slow, but when it blast offs, it can propel a class of kids into outer space.

Minding the Office

School_minder_student_infoDrowning in paperwork and files, and what school isn’t these days? Hunter Systems’ School Minder can help digitize an entire school’s activities to streamline its operations. The software has modules for creating class schedules, tracking grades, attendance and even an extensive section on discipline.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.