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The Win 7 Keyboard

WCD5000 You might be forgiven for thinking that any keyboard is just fine for those schools and districts upgrading to Windows 7 this fall. Well, it’s true that any USB device will be fine for the basics, but Microsoft’s $80 Wireless Comfort Desktop 5000 keyboard and mouse is not only comfortable and accurate for hours of typing but has one-touch features for Windows 7. In addition to the keyboard’s ability to rearrange program icons in the Taskbar, the keyboard can bring up a thumbnail preview of all open windows with the press of a button. It works with recent Windows releases as well as Macs, requires 4 AA batteries and includes a three year warranty. 

Virtual World’s Fair of Education

Rotunda a So many of the online educational places I visit are dominated by annoying ads or are a front for getting you to participate in a social networking community or are trying to sell you one thing or another. Wonder Rotunda is like a breath of fresh air with hundreds of educational opportunities, but no commercial come-ons. 

Start by creating an avatar (and a companion if you like) that represents you as you walk around the park and explore its nooks and crannies. It’s loosely based on the layout of the 1964 New York World’s Fair but with a multitude of educational possibilities. It has everything from a barrier reef journey and roller coaster ride to place to create your own symphony orchestra or business.

The rotunda can keep kids occupied for hours. All of the 15 activities are well thought out and have educational elements tuned to between fourth and seventh graders. Each takes between 10 and 20 minutes to go through and are entirely self-directed.   

For instance, there’s a very informative section about the American government and what goes on in Washington, DC that can replace a few chapters in a fourth grade social studies text book. The section has easy-to-understand descriptions of the monuments, the Supreme Court and how bills get passed, and only lacks a good description of lobbying. It has descriptions of the monuments, the Supreme Court and how bills get passed and only lacks a good description of lobbying.

It’s all well organized with a helpful check list of adventures. As the child goes through each item, it gets checked off the list. 

While children can use the rotunda on their own, it is just as appropriate for small groups working together. For those who want more depth in the subject area, many of the sections have additional readings as well as suggested museums to visit and a deep sources list. Unfortunately, none of the sources are linked for quick Web navigation.
There’s a hidden control panel that slides out of the side of the screen to show what’s going on and lets you pause the action to go to the bathroom or listen to the teacher. My favorite is the glossary, which has definitions for many of the more esoteric activities, although they’re not context sensitive so you have to sift through all of them to get to the one you want.

Along the way, kids can pick up Wonder Dollars, the park’s digital money, by completing tasks within each adventure. They start with $20 and can then buy digital food and drinks to keep their avatar active, eager and alert or get online souvenirs.

The Make a Difference Experience is unique in the online education world. It is an area devoted to getting kids to donate their time and energy to help a charity with Wonder dollars that you earn at the park. It’s all make-believe but the thoughts are in the right place and just might stimulate some students to volunteer at a charity. 

Rotunda b Wonder Rotunda is Web-based so it can run on just about any computer, even older ones that can’t handle the latest software. On the downside, the animation is crude and not even at the level of BrainPop, but is acceptable in an age where Sponge Bob is a media star. It can take 10 or 15 seconds to load an activity, many have corny music and the zoom-ins and other effects are choppy. 

As cool and impressive as the Wonder Rotunda is, it misses a few digital tricks. For instance, there’s a nice interactive map that shows what’s available in the rotunda, but none of the items are described when you can see the full park. Only when you zoom in on an area do the pop-up descriptions appear.   

At $45 for the first year and $35 for each after that, the Wonder Rotunda is too expensive to consider for an entire class. The company does offer educational discounts on a case by case basis and teachers can try to get parents to pay for and register their children. The Wonder Rotunda is an excellent first effort and every bit as engaging and engrossing as online video games built around robots, wizards and medieval warfare, only there’s a lot to learn.

$45 for first year, $35 each year after that

     + Innovative educational activities
     + Supplemental readings available
     + No ads
     + Nice control panel

     -  Crude animation
     - Expensive
     - Sources aren’t linked

Math Problems and Answers

Humongous-Geometry Is that anything worse than running out of practice problems in a math class? Mike Kelley’s series of Humongous study guides are filled with fun problems that are annotated with hints and tips for solving them. With “The Humongous Book of Geometry Problems,” “The Humongous Book of Calculus Problems,” “The Humongous Book of Algebra Problems” and “The Humongous Book of Statistics Problems,” there’s a book for augmenting most high school math classes. They cost between $16.95 and $18.95 and have hundreds of problems and answers in each. 

College and Beyond

Nav101Login Sometimes, even the smartest and most able high school students can’t manage to get into a good college or figure out what they want to be when they grow up. An innovative new service called Navigation 101 can help with an interactive system for the career and college minded. Aimed at 9-th graders and older, Navigation 101 has a slew of interactive lessons on getting ready for college, including financial aid, finding the right career and filling out applications. 

Comfy Keys

Wireless Desktop MK700_angle 3_hi Is there anything worse than a cheap keyboard that not only slows typing but can actually hurt your fingers and wrists? Logitech’s Wireless Desktop MK700 wireless keyboard and mouse set can make typing safe and fast. At $100, it’s a little pricey for schools, but thanks to Logitech’s softly rounded Incurve keys, your fingers won’t hurt at the end of typing a report card form or an email to a parent. There’s also an optical mouse that has a scroll wheel and needs a new battery once a year; the keyboard’s battery lasts an estimated 3 months. 

10-th Birthday Party for School Management

DFE_advanced_options (1) It’s hard to believe but Faronics’s Deep Freeze program is now 10 years old, and the latest edition (version 6.5) increases its usefulness for schools and districts by reducing IT costs by centralizing configuration and updates. To start, the new program can now be remotely deployed across a network and has an event scheduler for setting up software updates. Before any changes are made, the program can create customized warning messages to current users that things are going to change and users can cancel any operations they were working on. The program can be tried out on a 30-day trial and sells for $45 per seat, which can be lowered to $6.26 each for 1,000 users.  

FREEBEE FRIDAY: Instant Curriculum

Online curriculum Need an updated curriculum but can’t afford new textbooks or high-end digital courses? Don’t freak out because there are hundreds of classroom courses available online for free at Connexions. With everything from classes on the elements of music to Biochemistry, the Connexions courses are thorough and generally written by authoritative authors. A gem is Kerry Felder’s Algebra II curriculum that has just been accepted by the state of California. Just register and download as many of the over 700 classes available as you like and use them to treat specific subjects or build a whole class around them.  

PC Connection Central

Easy link The next time you need to move lots of files from one PC to another, keep that memory stick in your pocket. Hawking Technology’s HU2P4 Easy-Link USB Data Sharing Hub can make this task easier and with a greater chance of success by connecting two PC’s via USB plugs. The Easy Link software grabs the files you need to move and sends them from one computer to another, plus the device has three USB outlets so that you won’t have to disconnect the mouse, keyboard and other peripherals. The $30 device works with recent Windows releases, but only as a USB hub for Macintosh computers.

iPods Take Over the Classroom

While most teachers do their best to keep students from listening to their iPods during class, others are embracing this technology to transform classroom teaching techniques. While the tiny media audio players bring pod casts and recorded books to students, they have been designed for individual listening and not group work. Here’re three ways to bring iPods into the classroom

StudioDock_3i_beauty Samson’s StudioDock 3i works with any recent iPod so that it can be played for a small group or the entire class. Just drop the device into the dock and it’s ready to play anything recorded on the device. The speakers have a 30 watt amplifier as well as a 3.25 inch woofer and 25mm silk tweeter for excellent sound reproduction. There’s a front volume knob and the speakers can be connected to a computer via standard audio cables or a USB connection. The speaker set sells for $150. 

Ispin-b2 Why not turn an iPod into a DJ station for the school’s next dance with Sergio’s iSpin. At $200 it’s an inexpensive way to play music while adding sound effects and transitions between tracks. The iSpin can accommodate two iPods and crossfade between any tunes on them and has a microphone jack for the DJ to add his or her personal touch. A big bonus is that the iPods get charged while they’re in the iSpin.

If you’re having trouble keeping iPods charged and with the same material on them, Parat’s ParaSync can quickly synchronize the content on up to 20 iPods at once while charging them so they’re always ready for the next audio lesson. The device doesn’t require any special software and works with both Macs and PCs. 
PARASYNC_20_illuminated2-381x382 Just drag the material you want on the devices from the iTunes library on a computer . 

MacPad Coming?

Apple logo I usually steer clear of rumors about upcoming products, but there’s so much chatter about Apple’s future plans that I need to weigh in. Think of the MacBook Touch as a tablet computer that’s a hybrid combining the best aspects of a MacBook and the iPhone and will be based on Mac OSX 10.6. It is thought to have a 9.7-inch screen, USB ports as well as a SD flash card reader, and have either an 80- or 120GB hard drive. What it won’t have is a mechanical keyboard and rely instead on a screen keyboard. Keep an eye out for it this fall or winter and selling for about $1,000.

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