Archive for April 2014

Testing the Surface Pro 2

(image: Microsoft)
Note: This post originally came from my program blog for teachers and parents at University Prep. It was cross-posted at UPTIE on April 30.
The Upper School Device Program requires a laptop and touchscreen device.  While these can be two separate devices, as in a tablet and laptop, there are many new devices which combine both of these features into one device. The Surface Pro 2 by Microsoft is one option for students that satisfies both parts of the device specifications. Below are my testing notes on this device as for our Upper School students.

Minecraft vs MCEDU: Choose Your Weapon



Minecraft had been in medium range on my radar for a few months now, but a teacher project idea has pushed it into “go time.” Minecraft is definitely one of the hot discussion items of the last year or so and is still gaining steam for school development. Much of the classroom use is based on a variant of Minecraft called MinecraftEdu, meant specifically for classroom implementation. I spent most of a day researching and wrestling with the two variants, and trying to determine which was most appropriate for us. In the end, our decision came down to two large factors: the server options and student accounts.

Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other?

MinecraftEdu has a long way to go in its marketing to convincingly sell the difference between the two versions. While their wiki points to “features” which are supposed to help classroom management, it doesn’t delineate what those features are. It also advertises a lot of features which seem to be useful (plugins, WorldEdit, mods, etc.), but are in reality accessible to either Minecraft or MinecraftEdu. There are a few interesting additions to the Edu toolkit, including:

  • Teleporting all users back to you when its time to gather a class together,
  • Distributing “assignments” in the form of mass messages, and
  • Special “Do Not Build” blocks to limit places where students can’t build.

After consulting our resident Minecraft guru (12th Grade Help Desk Intern), he confirmed that pretty much all of the special features of Edu could be implemented with additional plugins and mods to the core Minecraft program. The key sell of MinecraftEdu is that these features are pre-activated and much easier for an administrator to control. For the average teacher setting this up for their class, that ease of use and setup equals valuable time and energy, and shouldn’t be disregarded. It was less of a selling point for me, though.

MinecraftEdu also has a fairly simple system for applying restrictions to users and settings in order to “lock down” the game. While I can certainly appreciate why that would be an appealing option, U Prep defaults on the side of an open experience as teaching tool, rather than preventative restrictions. Having many of these options removed at the server level eliminates some of the powerful digital citizenship lessons that can come out of an environment like this. While the end result in terms of user experience may end up being very similar, starting from a more permissive environment and modifying it to a comfortable level (i.e. core Minecraft) seemed to be preferred rather than starting too tight with built-in software-level restrictions and not being able to eliminate hard-coded functions within MinecraftEdu.

To Serve, or Not to Serve

A key point for us was where to host the application itself. As we continue to shift our infrastructure to cloud-based and vendor-hosted services rather than locally-managed devices, hosting with one of a variety of commercial Minecraft hosts fits with our overall IT philosophy. Furthermore, if this is going to be tied to school activities, we want it to be accessible both at home and at school. If that sounds contradictory, a key tenet of our device program is that students should have access to their learning from anywhere, at any time. A recreational game (which some students did operate last year) is fine within the space of school walls, but when it becomes a project or class activity, students need to be able to connect to that at any time. Opening up an additional port in the firewall just for purposes of accessing the server requires a little more IT work and management than hosting remotely.

The catch is that we could not find a commercial host operating MinecraftEdu–only Minecraft. Therefore, if we wanted to use Edu, we would have to host internally and deal with the ramifications of setting up an externally-accessible server. While there are lots of vendors providing online hosting of Minecraft (AllGamer is the most prominent), it is possible to install MinecraftEdu on a remote host, although it’s not the cleanest process.

The Clinching Factor

At this point, I was leaning towards the core Minecraft package for two main reasons:

  • Ease of procuring a externally-hosted vendor,
  • Ability to recreate any useful options of MinecraftEdu by using mods and plugins, and
  • More open environment closer aligned to our program philosophy.

The catch that turned us back towards MinecraftEdu was in the licensing: To provide Minecraft to students, we’d be buying accounts for individual students, which could be used for any Minecraft purposes: logging into school-provided servers as well as any other free play servers available outside of school control. This seemed to be a bit of an over-reach to us– the idea that we’d buy totally open versions of the game and give them to students for purposes which occasionally would be school-related just didn’t seem to fit within our program philosophy.

In contrast, buying MinecraftEdu doesn’t purchase software licenses– it purchases user licenses. Furthermore, the licenses are specified as “active user” licenses. In other words, the basic level of 25 licenses only relates to 25 simultaneously logged-in users. This is a huge advantage to deploying this different teachers or classes down the road– one class might use Minecraft for a project in March, while another can use the same licenses in June. We don’t have to deal with managing or limiting concurrently-installed software.

Much Ado About…?

In full disclosure, I’ve been working with our installation now for about two weeks. During installation, I came away with a different impression about the level of student restrictions within Minecraft Edu than I had coming in to the project– I simply turned off all of the restrictions in the installation process, and I think that we have a relatively equivalent level of “openness” in the Minecraft world than had we gone with a core installation. Once the students get totally immersed, we’ll have to see if we run up against “Why can’t we…”

In short, while I found precious little going in with which to compare the two versions of Minecraft side-by-side, I think we arrived at the correct conclusion in using Minecraft Edu even in light of our earlier concerns.

What I Want You to Know About… Notetaking

Notability for iPad

(picture: Cult of Mac)

Today I’m hosting a roundtable discussion about notetaking with our faculty. I’ll be asking them to share three questions:

  1. What are your students doing with notes that works well?
  2. What are their challenges?
  3. What available technology support/tools are your students (or you) using?

The purpose of the discussion is largely for all of us, myself especially, to get a sense of what is happening in our classes and learn from each other’s strategies and struggles. Current practice aside, though, there are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in the forefront of our discussions about notetaking. Read more

Installing MinecraftEdu on a Remote Hosted Server


After comparing Minecraft and MinecraftEdu, we decided to go with MinecraftEdu. While we had our own criteria for making this decision, ironically it wasn’t because of one of the biggest selling points of MCE– that teachers could run it on their own machines and set up a local server on the fly without IT involvement. While that applies for many teachers experimenting with Minecraft on their own, I was ready to support one of our teachers with a dedicated server for a couple of classroom projects. Over the last couple of years, though, we’ve been consciously moving most of our server infrastructure to external/hosted solutions. We didn’t want to create a local server which was counter to that strategy. Also, our teacher felt strongly (and we agreed) that her project would be best served with students having access from home. With that in mind, we decided to host MinecraftEdu on a new server through Blackmesh, our existing provider. Here’s how we installed and configured our server for the first time in a remotely-hosted environment.

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What Are You Listening To?

Originally Posted on on April 11, 2014
In the early days of listening to music on the Internet, the only available offerings were those “commercially viable” genres that could attract enough attention to warrant the high set-up and operation costs. Now that streaming music online has become standard and widespread, there are wonderful sources for choral music and other classical/art musics available online. For conductors and singers alike, this is a huge opportunity– for us as conductors, it’s an easy way for us to discover new compositions or ensembles. For singers, especially young singers who may not have exemplars of “the choral sound” in their ears, an opportunity to experience what choral music can sound like at its highest levels can be highly valuable. With that in mind, here is a quick run-down of some options which may help you and your musicians fill your ears.

NAIS Trendbook: Augmented Reality

The NAIS Trendbook 2013-2014 summarizes current research in a variety of topics relevant to the independent school community. I’m exploring some of the topics discussed in the “Education Technology Outlook” chapter.
Citing the Horizon Report, the NAIS Trendbook 2013-2014 indicates that Augmented Reality is one of the important upcoming trends in Ed Tech. Certainly PLN discussions and conference sessions bear this out– AR is becoming a frequent discussion topic, especially using Aurasma (iOS, ???). While the technology certainly creates some fun and impressive results, I’ve remained skeptical of the learning benefits presented by AR given its setup time required. The way that AR is presented in the Trendbook has highlighted a key benefit of AR that I hadn’t considered before, and it’s one that definitely changes my perception of the technology: the capacity to create self-directed learning opportunities outside of the school boundaries. Off-site learning may be the killer (and under-discussed) feature of Augmented Reality.

“Gears of My Childhood”


I’m participating in the second round of Learning Creative Learning from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Lab. This is in response to the first prompt: Read Seymour Papert’s essay on Gears of My Childhood and write a short description about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you. 

My thesis could be summarized as: What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes. This book is the result of my own attempts over the past decade to turn computers into instruments flexible enough so that many children can each create for themselves something like what the gears were for me.

–Seymour Papert, Forward to “Mindstorms


In the essay linked above, Papert describes how a simple toy, in this case gears from a car, built a powerful framework upon which his future learning hung. Some mathematical and scientific concepts were completely intuitive to him because he had, as a very young child, experienced the operation of gears. Because he had a concrete understanding of that mechanism, underlying principles of it became very easy for him to grasp. In essence, because he understood the “what” so personally, the “how” and “why” fit themselves neatly into his understanding even years later. Reading his experience, I immediately saw two “gears” of my youth reflected therein: the computer and the piano. Just as with Papert’s gears, I believe that these two tools formed for me what he refers to (extending Piaget) as “intellectual structures [that] grow out of one another and […] in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.” Read more

What Real Digital Citizenship Looks Like

I recently set up a hallway station with Scratch and a MaKey Makey to invite students to play with basic programming. The hope was that students would do this relatively unsupervised– for much of the day, I wasn’t around and just let the station run. Obviously, there are a lot of risks in this approach: I felt like in our school community it was a relatively safe activity to run.

I came back at one point and saw that a student had entered the following program for one of the six inputs:

  1. Set Volume=500%
  2. Play “Meow”
  3. Repeat 12001 Times

Who knows how long it had been running before I got there, but the program was happily meowing away (although mercifully, capped at 100% volume). Just after I walked up, an 8th grade student came over to look at the program. I asked him what he thought we should do about it. He thought for a second, and said “add another program that stops it. That way people can start it and see what happens, but then stop it.”

What would the “responsible adult” suggestions have been?

  • Turn off the speakers
  • Delete the offending program
  • Take down the station or add supervision

The student’s suggestion both preserved the learning opportunity of the original looped statement, as well as providing an easy way to manage the consequences. I stepped back and told him to make it happen. He grabbed a friend walking by and the two of them figured out the necessary steps in a few seconds’ time and continued on to class.

Problem-Solving and Collaboration, applied to responsibly solving a problem that had arisen. All this in a non-destructive, non-restrictive solution which allows further development/forward progress. To my mind, a perfect encapsulation of what we want digital citizenship to look like.

A Hallway MaKey MaKey Drive-by


We now have a handful of MaKey MaKey units to be used between our Sandbox Makerspace and 7th/8th Grade Project Science. After playing around for an afternoon with them, I decided to put them someplace visible and open-ended to invite people to use them. I was looking for a combination of advertising for the makerspace, easy-entry programming task, and high-visibility play for the school. After a couple hours of experimentation, I had the Pie Plate Programming Platform: a combined demo of MaKey Makey and Scratch that had Middle School and Upper School students laughing, engaging and asking (along with the Faculty) “Are you going to leave this here for a while?”

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