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Freebee Friday: Software, A to (almost) Z

K12 swYou’re probably aware of a few places that offer schools the free use of their software, but K12 Software has roughly two dozen packages for your school to use for nothing. From Animoto animation software to WatchKnowLearn.org’s video collection, there’re apps for writing, getting videos and even improving classroom behavior. In other words, there’s something for every school.

Next Gen Pen and Paper

Triple_slide_5_HDIt’s only fitting that the next generation school slate, Intel’s Education Tablet, comes with the most advanced stylus, N-trig’s Duo-Sense Pen. The two together will hopefully take this genre to a new level for teaching and learning.

Powered by a 1.2GHz Intel Atom processor, the Android 4.2-based education tablet comes with 1GB of RAM as well as 8-, 16- or 32GB of solid state storage space. Its 10.1 touch-screen shows 1,280 by 800 resolution, can respond to finger touches and the device is housed in a water- and shock-resistant case.

PenThe tablet really comes into its own with N-trig’s stylus, which responds to 256-levels of pressure for everything from a drawing map of the 13 Colonies or scribbling out math equations to writing musical notation or creating digital artwork. The truly amazing part about the DuoSense stylus is that unlike other active pens, it isn’t powered by a hard-to-find disposable battery that needs to be replaced. Rather it gets recharged every time it’s stowed in the tablet. According to Ntrig, a 15 second charge is good for several hours of use. It’s also the rare stylus that comes with a tether so it won’t get lost on the first day of school.

Listen Up

AudioWith video taking the starring role in the classroom these days, it’s easy to forget about audio. When it comes to teaching, sounds are, in fact, just as – if not more – important than visuals. Unfortunately, most classrooms earn a failing grade when it comes to making sure that every student can hear the lesson.

Whether it’s for quiet time, when everyone needs to use headphones, or class-time, when amplifying what’s on a tablet counts, these two products can help make sure everyone can hear as well as see what’s going on.

Headphone Two-fer

Wicked Y-splitterHow often have you had to choose a room filled with a cacophony of sounds because there were enough headphones but not enough computers to accommodate the whole class? It happens a lot these days, but Wicked Audio has a solution that’s a lot cheaper than getting a slew of notebooks or tablets. Its $10 Divvy Y-Splitter is an excellent way for two headphone-clad kids to share an audio feed.

Getting started is quick and easy because the all-black device is small, sturdily built and doesn’t require batteries. It’s simple to use and there’s no software to load. Just plug it in to an audio source and you’re set, regardless of whether the listeners are using ear buds or over the ear headphones.

The Divvy splitter has a 9-inch extension cable that includes a male 3.5-millimeter plug at one end that goes into a computer, digital music player or even an Internet radio. At the other end is a small box that has a pair of female 3.5-mm jacks for plugging the headphones into.

Divvy’s secret is that it has a pair of thumbwheel volume controls for individually controlling how loud each feed can get. The adjustment is smooth and ranges from muting the audio to full volume. On the downside, there’s no volume limiter that can prevent hearing damage in little listeners.

I tried it with several different headphones and sources and found it to be an effective way of doubling the usefulness of a computer or music player. On the downside, the two-fer connector’s maximum volume is lower than by directly plugging the headphone into the source. It didn’t diminish the richness of the sound, though.

Every classroom that has a multimedia bent to it needs to have several of these two-fers.

 The Slate Finds its Voice

Pa-mbiosBut, when the whole class needs to hear, you need an amplifier and speaker set to boost the volume. Califone’s PA-MBiOS can do the trick with a tablet stand that has high-powered speakers built in.

 At $158, it can cost nearly as much as an inexpensive Android slate these days, but it can fill a classroom with audio. Designed to work with iPads, the PA-MBiOS not only sends the pad’s audio signal to the speakers but charges the slate as well.

It has an old-school 30-pin plug for connecting and powering first- or second-generation pads. To use newer iPads, you’ll need to get an adapter to the newer Lightning plug.

The PA-MBiOS can also work with any Android system or an external audio source. It comes with adapters for attaching a generic slate, phone or digital music player to the system. On the other hand, you’ll need to use a 3.5-millimeter audio input and a jumper cable.

Unfortunately, there’s no switch for choosing between using the iPad or an external audio source. In other words, if you’re not careful the system can disconcertingly play both at the same time.

It perfectly fits a full-size and Mini iPad, but can accommodate some other small tablets and phones with the included adapter arms. The speaker has a weighted circular base and a hidden secret to its structure. In portrait mode, the stand allows the pad to be tilted from 62-degrees to full horizontal position, although at this point it has the tendency to tip over when tapped. You can also rotate it counterclockwise to change its orientation to just beyond landscape position, although it is dangerously close to coming off of the connector that holds the iPad in place.

Pambios-backThe speaker’s controls are easy to figure out, with an on-off switch, a volume control and a blue LED to show the unit is on. The central stalk holds the pad at a variety of angles and heights for easy viewing and tapping. It is powered by an AC adapter.

Inside the PA-MBiOS are a 5-watt amplifier and a pair of 2-inch drivers that get surprisingly loud. The system can reproduce sound in the 100- to 20,000-hertz range that sounds full but is a little weak in the bass notes. I used it with a first generation iPad, a recent Mini and a Nexus 7 Android slate. I found it to be easy to set up and use while providing enough power to fill a room with sound. I only wish it had a remote control so that I could adjust the volume from across the room.

It worked just as well at playing music as a podcast, but the system lacks the ability to plug in a microphone and you can’t use it to project what’s on the iPad’s screen because its connector is taken up by the PA-MBiOS. It comes with a 1 year warranty and can turn a slate into a classroom sound system.



Plan and Teach

Planboard-ipad-1If your teacher lesson plans are staying put and not being shared among classes, Planboard can put an end to it. The Planboard software and Web site not only allow teachers to share their lessons with peers and parents, but its library of 4,500 standards and educational expectations can help align lessons with curriculum standards.


HP Pavilion x360 (red, ghost recline)Convertibles are a great way to have the attributes of a tablet and a notebook in one system, but they’ve been too expensive for schools to afford. That is, until HP’s $400 Pavilion x360. It features an 11.6-inch touch-screen that has a 360-degree hinge so that it can be folded from a traditional notebook into a tent-like system, a presentation machine for small groups or a slate. The system has a soft touch finish that should stand up to daily abuse and will be available with either a Celeron or Pentium processor along with a hybrid 500GB hard drive. Look for it later this year.

Freebee Friday: Free Chromebooks

C720-zoom-bigIt’s true, Acer is offering K-through-12 schools a one month trial of the company’s newest Chromebook. All they have to do is apply online and participate in two conference calls about the system. It’s a great way to explore what the latest Chromebooks and available software are all about. The program runs through April 5th.



Freebee Friday: School Online

Open cultureAs online classes, eTexts and audio books invade the classroom, the question comes up as to how to get the best and leave the rest. Open Culture is a great resource for a teacher looking for unique material as well as studetns looking for extra help or enrichment. Rather than producing curriculum, Open Culture reviews and links to quality material for the K-12 class. There are more than 825 Open Culture approved classes, 550 audio books and 160 online texts.

Fighting Dyslexia with Androids

Ghotit bGhotit can help dyslexics learn to read and write with its Real Writer & Reader 3 for Android tablets and smartphones. In addition to a grammar checker, the app has a context-aware spelling checker and a word prediction routine that makes suggestions along the way. At any time, the phone or tablet can read anything to the student. Ghotit Real Writer & Reader 3 for Android supports any text application running on Android tablets and smartphones. You can buy a copy for $199 or use it for $29 a month.

Handheld Windows

Encore aWith all the hype and claims about putting Android tablets or iPads in the hands of kids, one important point has been ignored: these systems use different software that the school has to separately purchase ort license. Not the case with Windows tablets, like Toshiba’s Encore.

As slates for school get smaller, they get easier to use and fit better into a school’s curriculum. Encore’s screen is 8 inches and the whole device fits easily into the hand. It’s just as good for teaching as for learning and has a built-in software bonus.

At just 0.4-inches thick, it is as easy to handle as an iPad or Android tablet. Its 5.4- by 8.4-inch footprint is slightly wider than Dell’s Venue 8 Pro and at 15.3-ounces, it is 2 ounces heavier. Still, the silver and black design has a flush screen that makes poking, swiping and tapping easy.

Unlike some small Windows tablets, the Encore has a Windows button upfront and delivers a gentle vibration when it starts up. The 8-inch screen can show 1,280 by 800 resolution and has Intel’s HD Graphics, but only responds to five independent touch inputs, rather than the expected ten. While it looks bright, rich, has gently rounded corners and is perfect for small hands, the 8-inch screen can sometimes take a couple (or three) pokes or swipes to get the machine to do what you want it to do.

Encore dIt worked well in normal use and was a step up from a full-size notebook or tablet for working with things like the University of Colorado’s PHET science and math simulations or watching a Khan Academy instructional video. On the downside, Toshiba doesn’t offer an optional pressure-sensitive stylus for more precise work, but the system worked fine with a generic stylus.

In addition to a dual microphone array, the Encore has speakers on the bottom when you hold it vertically. The system comes with Dolby Digital Plus audio as well as cameras front (2-megapixel) and back (8-megapixel).

I looked at the 32GB version that at $300 is on a par with Android slates. Toshiba also has a 64GB version that goes for $350. At any time, you can use its micro-SD card slot to add a 64GB card for extra storage space. There are micro-HDMI and audio ports. Like its peers, the Encore comes with 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 built-in.

Encore bInside is an up-to-date quad-core Atom Z3740 processor that runs at between 1.3- and 1.9GHz. On the other hand – like many other Atom-based tablets – the system is limited to using 2GB of RAM. While not crippling its operations, it does put a damper on its performance.

The system’s performance potential is modest and roughly matches that of the Venue 8 Pro with a Passmark PerformanceTest 8 score of 526. That’s on a par with a low-end Core i3 system and should be more than enough for 99-percent of what’s needed in a classroom.

Encore’s 2,000milliamp-hour battery is charged with a micro-USB adapter plug, which at 2-ounces is not only light and small, but the prongs fold-up. The battery was able to power the Encore for 7 hours and 17 minutes of continuous use, nearly an hour longer than the Dell Venue 8 Pro and likely twice as long as the typical notebook in your school. With some power conservation, this should translate into something like needing to charge the system every other or third day.

It comes with Windows 8.1 and Norton Internet Security with a month of updates. The bonus is that the mini-tablet comes with a full copy of Office 2013 Home & Student, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote; all you’ll need to do is type in the license number.

Encore cThe bigger bonus is that the Encore will work with just about every piece of Windows software that the district or school has invested in. This is a technological feat that no Android or iPad can touch.

Good things do come in small packages these days, but don’t let its $330 list price on Toshiba’s Web site fool you. Dig deeper and you’ll see that with a 1-year warranty, the Encore sells for closer to $300, exactly the same price as the slightly smaller and lighter Dell Venue 8 Pro, making two very compelling arguments against filling a classroom with iPads and Android tablets. 


Encore e

Toshiba Encore Tablet


+ Excellent battery life


+ Dual microphone array

+ Office included

+ Windows software


- Limited to 2GB of RAM

- Slightly heavy and bulky

- No stylus option

- 5-finger touch-screen


Teaching without the Wires

Tablet-FrontStand-500pxEver want to chuck the cables that connect your computer to the projector? TabPilot’s Breea Freedom HD tablet lets you do just that by wirelessly sending the screen’s contents to a projector. The transmitter is built into the slate and the projector needs to use a $100 Breea Freedom Receiver. No ordinary tablet, the $295 Breea Freedom features a 9.7-inch display that has a resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 and can go for a full school day on a charge.

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