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Outlining Written Success

Outline A great essay usually starts with a good idea, but putting that concept on paper is never easy for an early writer. That’s where PaperToolsPro comes in. The software now has the ability to help kids put together a good outline based on research and notes that can be fleshed out into a cogent essay, project or research paper.  It all starts with a template that lets students fill in the main idea and supporting points and then get on with the hard work of writing. When done, the program can help fill in the footnotes needed. PaperToolsPro costs $200 per building plus a dollar per student.

Classroom at Warp Speed

Warpia easydock If you thought that Warpia’s PC to TV adapter was a cool way to put whatever is on your notebook on a big-screen monitor or projector, the company’s USB EasyDock does it one better. Using the same wireless USB technology, EasyDock not only transmits high-quality audio and video across the classroom but lets you plug in two USB devices – like a hard drive or printer – at the receiver. Everything transmitted is encrypted and the system works with recent Windows releases as well as Macs. It costs $150.

A Sound Approach to School Audio

Califone speaker Outfitting a classroom or computer lab’s worth of speakers can break the bank, but Califone’s three-piece DMS-1 speaker set can do it on the cheap. Priced at $65, the DMS-1 has a subwoofer and pair of satellite speakers, and plugs into the computer’s sound card, a CD player or even an iPod for instant audio. There are controls for adjusting the volume, bass and treble.


Freebee Friday: Special Ed Winners

Morgan's world If you’ve never heard of Morgan’s Wonderland, you’re missing a treat. It’s a 25-acre completely accessible amusement park in San Antonio that has rides, playgrounds, gardens and activities for those with special needs as well as an 8-acre fishing lake. The people behind PCI Education and WeAreTeachers are giving away a trip to it worth $5,000 for one deserving student and family, including airfare and accommodations. In addition, 5 teachers will get educational products from PCI Education. To be in the running, teachers need to nominate exceptional students based on their needs and ability to inspire fellow students and teachers. Better hurry, the contest ends on October 1.

Freebee Friday: Graph-Tastic

Who needs graphing calculators if you have a classroom of notebook computers. You’ll need a graphing and analysis program like Geo-Gebra, but it's free and you can distribute it to students as long as you don’t change or charge for it. While it’s not as powerful a math-teaching tool as Sage, Geo-Gebra is my favorite for doing math on a PC because it’s a lot simpler to use and you won’t spend a full class explain how to do things with it. Kids (and some teachers) just get it.

The prograGeogebram is good for elementary through high school classes, runs on Java and is easy to set up and use. There's a lot of classroom material and it's a quick starter. For instance, need a circle? Just grab it from the Menu bar and plop it where it needs to be and resize it. As you do this the code to create it is automatically placed on the left side so you can tweak it if you need to. A big bonus is that curious advanced student will no doubt use this as a way to teach themselveds how to progam in this language.

Depending on what you’re doing, you can use a grid background or not and every operationcan be undone. I really like the software's Wiki page, which has a good primer on how to use Geo-Gebra along with some classroom learning materials, including article, applets and classroom activities. The best part is that it will run on just about every computer in your school, including Windows, Mac and many Linux variants.

Less Expensive Office?

OfficeMac2008Home_print Got a bunch of Macs at your school that you load with Microsft’s Office set of apps? The word on the street is that come October, the next version of the suite will cost a few dollars less. For instance, look for single copies of the Home and Student version, which comes with Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Messenger for Mac, to cost $120 instead of $150. The academic version will go for $100.  

Two-For Monitors

83-11680 Can’t afford a shiny new big screen display for each classroom but you have a bunch of 17- or 19-inch monitors sitting around gathering dust. Think about using a VGA dual splitter to drive two monitors from one computer and aiming them to different sides of the class. The adapter cost about $7, saving many hundreds of dollars and making better use of the equipment you do have.

Touch 'N Teach

M90z-1L With school budgets stretched to the breaking point at most districts, it’s hard to justify a PC that costs more than a thousand dollars, right? That’s the conventional wisdom but if that computer is Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M90z, it can turn a small space, like a large closet, storage room or repurposed office, into a classroom, and actually save money compared to yesterday’s destktop. In fact, the M90z is an investment in the future, and as far as teaching potential goes, it’s a bargain.

The M90z is nothing short of the most advanced all-in-one PC available today. It has a responsive 23-inch touch-screen and is only 3.5-inches thick. With its adjustable chrome stand, the system be set up on a table only 7 inches from a wall or mounted directly on a wall with VESA-standard screws holes that are 100-mm apart. A nifty stand that lets you raise and lower the screen adds $50 to the price tag.

Its optical display responds to the touch for moving the pointer around, selecting items or activating them. It can also work with two-finger gestures, like pressing your fingers in and out to zoom-in and -out on an image. Kids are attracted to it immediately and have an intuitive way of understanding how it works. The only downside is that after a day of teaching, the screen will be covered with fingerprints, dust and chalk.

The unit I looked is about as well equipped as the M90z gets. It has a powerful 3.2-GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB or RAM and a 500GB hard drive. There’s a Super Multi DVD burner, Intel’s GMA HD graphics engine and a 2-megapixel HD Web cam above the screen; the camera can be easily turned off with a shutter that closes in front of it. There are models that start at about $929 that use a Pentium processor and have less RAM and a smaller hard drive.

Every M90z has a great assortment of ports with 6 USB, audio, DisplayPort, wired and wireless networking and a flash card reader. While it comes with a Bluetooth radio for connecting with peripherals, the system lacks an e-SATA jack for adding an external hard drive.

There’s the bonus of a VGA-in connector, which allows a teacher to connect a second computer or iPad to the M90z and use it as an external monitor. All it takes is a few clicks of Lenovo’s SimpleTap touch interface to set up it up to either mirror or extend a computer display.

It stands head and shoulders above other all-in-one systems by being easy to get inside for repairs, maintenance and upgrades. Just unsnap two clips on the back and swing the back open to get at memory, hard drive, DVD drive and other parts. Putting the cover back on is a little harder and involves a good hard shove to get it all fit back together.

M90z-6LUnlike other all-in-one systems, like Acer’s Aspire Z5600 family, which comes with a nicely matched set of wireless mouse and multimedia keyboard, the M90z includes a nondescript wired keyboard and mouse. Still the Aspire Z5600 sells for at least $100 less than a comparably equipped M90z.

Regardless of whether it’s an interactive map of how Lee’s soldiers entered Gettysburg or a rotating 3-D model of a vitamin C molecule for a biology class, the system’s 23-inch wide screen can display full high definition video in vivid color. This should be great for a computer lab or for a teacher to use to teach to a group of up to about 10 or 15 kids in a classroom setting. More than that and you’ll need a larger monitor.

It all adds up to a high performance PC with a 1,147.7 on Passmark’s Performance 7.0 benchmark suite of tasks. That’s on a par with a high-performance PC, at least double the potential of the typical notebook and four-times that of a netbook.

This speed is not at the expense of wasting electricity because the M90z uses only 73 watts of power when it in use, only about as much as a light bulb. Overall, if it’s used for 8 hours a day during the school year, it should cost less than $17 a year to operate – a small fraction of what a tower-size PC and separate monitor cost.

At $1,250 my loaded system came with Windows 7 Professional and a slew of software. Overall, it was a pleasure to use with excellent touch response and great performance, but I think that the $930 base system is an easier sell for most schools these days


Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z

+ Excellent performance
+ Wall mounting
+ Touch screen with two-finger gestures
+ Easy access for maintenance
+ Can use as monitor

- Expensive
- Lacks e-SATA port

PC without the Plug

Skinnybytes Got a place where you need some PCs but not enough AC outlets or electrical capacity to power them? You’re not alone because rewiring a classroom or computer lab to support 20 PCs can cost thousands of dollars in a building of a certain age. There’s another way: use power over Ethernet (POE) to bring data and electricity to the system.

SkinnyBytes is a small company that specializes in making computers that don’t get plugged in, but get their power from an Ethernet LAN cable. It takes a slightly more expensive router or switch to integrate power over your school’s CAT-5 cables, but it’s easy to set up. SkinnyBytes has touch screen desktops as well as portable computers, all of which have touch screens. They range from $700 to $900 and a 16.5-inch desktop touchscreen system is on the way.

Hear it All

Wireless-Headset-H760_hi-300x172 Most wireless headsets cover the speaking part fairly well, but disappoint when it comes to its audio quality. Logitech’s H760 wireless headset does it all with crisp digital stereo ear muffs that have a graphic equalizer so you can tune the sound to just the way you like it. As the microphone is lifted out of the way, the system automatically mutes, making it great for classroom situations where you need to be connected with both a computer and the class. It’s much easier to use than finicky Bluetooth headsets that never seem to want to connect because the H760 has a dedicated radio in a tiny USB connector; plug it in to a PC or Mac computer and you’re ready. It costs $100.

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