After months of speculation, rumor and outright lies, Apple finally introduced its long-awaited Tablet. Called iPad, the latest tablet has a beautiful 9.7-inch color screen, weighs 1.5 pounds and is about half an inch thick. The device can be viewed horizontally (for videos) or vertically (for reading or writing).
There’s a screen keyboard for typing and it can handle complex finger gestures, just like the iPhone, which its software is based on. The device comes with the Safari Web browser and a slew of apps. Apple will be offering iWork suite with a more touch-friendly interface that includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations image viewing and editing. Like the earlier version of iWork, it excels at putting different items together into a compelling classroom project with a wide variety of fonts and templates.
While iPad works just fine on its own, it can connect to a school’s network or the Web via WiFi or a 3-G cell phone data connection. So far, all the talk about content has revolved around streaming newspapers, magazines and popular ebooks to its screen, but if the range of iPhone apps and sources is any indication, I hope that the next step will be textbooks. It’s price starts at $500 with 16MB of storage, a little more than a netbook, but high-end models can cost $829. Look for it by the beginning of spring.
It’s hard to get school administrators to see eye to eye on anything but one thing they generally agree on is that WiFi is a great way to cover a school with wireless Internet connections without the cost and hassle of running Ethernet cables to each room. But, just about every set up I’ve seen has dead spots, nooks and crannies where the signal (and the Web) doesn’t reach. For those areas and a variety of other uses, I like the idea of using a nifty mobile router, like Verizon's MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot that takes a 3G cellular connection and turns it into a WiFi hot spot.
At just of 2-ounces about the size of a few stacked credit cards, the MiFi router can be carried in a shirt pocket from room to room as needed. Made by Novatel, the MiFi 2200 is available from Verizon or Sprint and can plug holes in your school’s WiFi infrastructure. I used the Verizon version, which connects to Verizon’s 3-G CDMA network and doles out WiFi connections to up to five systems at a time. Alternatively, it can be connected to a single machine via a USB cable.
It takes about 10 minutes to set the MiFi router up and Verizon has a nice little video that explains it all. It comes fully configured with a cryptic network name and password, which can be changed at any point so that it better fits into the school’s LAN. It works with any 802.11b or g equipped computer, PC or Mac, but can’t create an 802.11n network.
The system’s Administration page shows vital statistics like the status of the connection as well as the amount of data sent and received. You can see how many users are online and IP address, network name and other details. With the device’s password, which is printed in the manual, you can make changes to a variety of performance and security parameters
Unlike most routers that come from the factory with generic network name and security turned off – making it very easy to hack into – MiFi has a personalized network name and is setup for full WiFi Protected Area (WPA) encryption, although that can be changed as well. There’s even a way to force it to go into standby mode to save on battery power when not in use.
For a device so small and light, the MiFi router does surprisingly well at grabbing an Internet connection out of thin air and connecting with teachers and students. It’s just as good for repurposing a room out of the WiFi network for instruction, setting up an instant digital classroom or for offering the Web to students and staff on a field trip or on the playground on a sunny day. The big bonus of having a few MiFi 2200 devices sitting around is that whenever there’s a network or power failure, they continue to work.
Its performance is surprisingly good with an average 1.2Mbps download connection at 15-feet during a variety of times during the day and week. It handled video, Internet radio and long downloads well, worked with notebooks old and new, and had a range of 80-feet. It ran for 3 hours 25 minutes of continuous use on its built-in battery, a little short of the advertised 4 hours. I only wish it could accommodate more than five users at once.
While the MiFi 2200 device itself costs only $50, you need to sign a two-year contract for service. The basic plan provides a stingy 250MB of data per month for $40. That’s only about enough for an hour of YouTube video. For $60 a month Verizon gives you 5GB of data a month or about a nickel a megabyte. The network doesn’t offer any unlimited data plans.
Today, you have to put the Internet in its place, and increasingly that’s wherever there are teachers and students.
Verizon’s MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot
$49 with two-year contract
$40 plan with 250MB per month or $60 plan with 5GB per month
+ Small light and easy to set up
+ Battery power
+ Full WiFi security
+ Surprisingly fast
- 5 connection limit
- Short battery life
- 802.11b + g only
- Limited data plans
One thing that has bugged me for the decade since computers have slipped into school curricula is that while most schools generally do a good job of teaching how to use Word, Excel and the like, they generally abdicate any responsibility for teaching programming. It’s hard to believe but this important discipline is thought to be too advanced for middle or high schools students. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not, thanks to a program from Carnegie-Mellon University called Alice.
Alice not only teaches programming by doing, it doesn’t require typing statements or learning the unique syntax of programming. In fact, everything is done by dragging and dropping items from the side to the main screen and then making adjustments. Within ten minutes of starting, most kids are able to place an object on a screen, cause it to move, rotate, jump and react to mouse movements. It can be the basis for creating a mini movie to tell a story or an interactive game.
In other words, it’s a great way to introduce these ideas to students who are 12-years or older and have them learn by trying. On top of the base program and a huge variety of objects that range from space ships to geometric shapes, Alice has a slew of teaching materials and books. It works with Windows, Mac and Linux systems, is absolutely free to download and just might be the first step to creating the next Bill Gates.