The latest version of Reading Rainbow, the Skybrary School Edition is perfect for teaching and motivating kids to read. Aimed at elementary school early learners, the school edition includes access to more than 500 books as well as video clips, classroom lesson plans and assessments with open-ended questions that probe reading comprehension. It lets students read when they want to while teachers can sneak a peek as to how often kids are actually reading. An annual license costs $179 per classroom (for up to 35 students) or $1,450 (for up to 350 students), but there’s a 30-day trial.
Regardless of all the conspiracy theories about vaccines causing autism, they do one thing extraordinarily well: protect students from a variety of once-fatal diseases, like measles and whooping cough. But, only if everyone – or nearly so – are vaccinated. That’s where CareDox fits in. The health database stores all pertinent health records in an encrypted form online and puts an end to parents filling out the same forms year after year. The data ranges from vaccination records and allergies to vision and dietary restrictions. CareDox is smart enough to track visits to the nurse’s office to look for health trends and the service allows school administrators to retrieve the vaccination and other records in an instant instead of digging through the nurse’s file cabinet.
PowerPoint is the tool of choice in the classroom for teachers and students to boil down complex ideas into a simple sequence of slides. It now enters the era of interactive learning with Microsoft’s Mix add-on that lets you do everything from adding voice-over narration and a video window of a teacher explaining a lesson to on-the-spot quizzes. The best part is that a Mix lesson can not only run in PowerPoint, but students can play it on a wide variety of devices.
If your school’s computers already have Office, getting started with Mix is the easy part. Mix is a free download add-on for PowerPoint that leaves a ribbon toolbar behind. At 3.5MB, the download is small and it takes just a few minutes to get and install. At the moment it is a beta app that works with Office 2013 and Microsoft’s online Office 365 set ups on the PC platform; unfortunately, there’s no Mac equivalent. The software will undergo continual updates over the next few months.
The beauty of Mix is that it lets you work in the familiar PowerPoint environment and not have to learn how to use a new program while giving you the power to use a variety of interactive elements. In a real sense, it picks up where the traditional program leaves off, adding lots of new potential, but the new items can crowd the emerging presentation into about 60-percent of the screen’s area. It was just enough room on a 10.6-inch Surface Pro system, but might be too crowded on a smaller screen.
While you can bring in existing presentations done in PowerPoint, anything older than an Office 2013 file will have to be saved in the new format before you can use it in Mix. It’s no big deal and takes less than a minute for all but the most media-heavy slide shows.
After clicking on the Mix tab, you can start creating your lesson or adding interactive elements. The biggest change for education is the ability to add assessments. At any time, you can slip in a quiz on its own page. There are formats for free response and multiple choice. The items are extremely well integrated into the program.
After typing the question into the box and kind of answer or possible responses, it’s ready to be used in class or even for a student who is remotely connected. This makes it perfect for keeping a student who is sick or missed class for a school event from falling behind. The teacher can add hints and set the assessment up for multiple attempts.
How about adding a talking head on-screen? Mix lets you record your own selfies for the class to see in a window. It’s best to use the system’s Web cam, and the video looks good on-screen. Alternatively, you can add a screen shot from the Web, an app or just about anything, including – for technophobes among us – a photo of a chalked-up blackboard. Alternatively, some lessons just need a voice-over, explaining what’s going on.
Anything within Mix can be marked up and annotated in your choice of 10 colors and a variety of pen styles, including several different colored highlighting, creating a virtual whiteboard. But, this works best with a pen-enabled computer. I used a Surface Pro to create two simple Mix lessons over a three week period with video, audio, images, assessments and video.
A hidden bonus is that Mix can use existing curriculum material from places like Khan Academy, CK12 and – my favorite – University of Colorado’s PHET science and math simulations. Look for GeoGebra’s math content to be added soon. It’s ambitious, but Microsoft is trying to create an educational ecosystem that will make Mix a powerful teaching tool with the ability to grab music, maps, artwork, labs and embedded interactive apps. At the moment, it is more promise than reality, but time will tell as the company adds more partners and content.
When everything’s done, you can leave it as a PowerPoint presentation to give to students or post on a school site for them to download. But, the world does not live by Office alone, so Mix projects can be streamed to any system with a recent Web browser or saved as an MP4 video. The only requirements to play Mix shows is that the system can handle HTML 5 and Java Script.
Teachers can share Mix lessons, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day at school. At the moment, there are several intriguing shows available, including ones on grammar, statistics and physics, that demonstrate the potential. They are generally between about 15- and 200-megabytes for a 15 to 20 minute presentation, so they can take a minute or so to download.
Overall, Mix is an interesting and innovative half-step forward in the state of the art for teaching, but Microsoft will need to add a variety of content before Mix will start to be truly useful in the classroom. From curriculum to multimedia providers, Mix’s potential can only be fulfilled if the app is fleshed out with more content. Only then, will it become a must-have in the classroom. By contrast, Adobe’s Voice, which only allows authoring on an iPad, includes art, music and a huge library of clip art, but lacks the connection to curriculum and the ability to add assessments.
The program has several online how-to videos to help ease the transition to a Mix classroom. There are several samples available that hint at the potential of this powerful new multimedia tool. Over time, I hope Mix grows broad and deep enough to help teachers teach.
+ Free add-on to PowerPoint
+ Adds interactive elements and assessments
+ Can add lively curriculum elements
+ Small download
+ Can share lessons
+ Export as video
- Need current PowerPoint
- Short on content