Screentime lets you put down your tablet to get on your bike!

Screentime lets you put down your tablet to get on your bike!

Tablets and smartphones are a great source of fun, knowledge and communication for adults and childrens alike, which my seven year old son has embraced as he loves playing games like Angry Birds on my old Android device. It is a wonder to watch him solve problems and make progress on these games without any input from me, but I have also noticed how gripped he is with the games to the extent that he does not interact with me or anyone else while he is playing. He has books and other toys in his room that are gathering dust and it is frequently a source of conflict or metldowns whenever I think he has spent enough time on the device and tell him to stop. I have tried to set daily limits of thirty minutes during weekdays and an hour on the weekend but I can lose track of time and before we know it an hour has become two. Plus, he gets up very early on the weekend to play Angry Birds and will get more than his daily allowance before I am even awake.

I have been looking for a way to get more control of my son’s tablet use and I think I may have discovered a really good technical solution. It is a service driven by an app called Screentime, which I am currently evaluating. I setup a free account at Screentime and downloaded and installed the Android app from the site. There is a version to download from the Google Play store but the file from the Screentime site stops children from uninstalling the app unless they enter a password.It took me a few minutes to install the app on my son’s tablet and link it to my Screentime account using an authentication code that was sent to my Email but this was a one timne setup process and now it is working. I believe the service also works on IOS but I have not tried the app on this platform.

I can now view and control my son’s tablet use from a parent control app that runs on my Android smartphone and from from my account on Screentime’s website. The app gives me detailed stats on when my son is using the tablet and what apps or games he is accessing. I can block specific apps and specify weekday and weekend time limits. I can remotely pause the tablet or grant more time when my son carries out good deeds such as being helpful. I tried Screentime for the first time yesterday. My son put down the tablet in good grace when his time limit had been used up and this has freed him up to appreciate what is there in front of him in real life. We went outside after dinner on his bicycle and he began pedalling without stabilisers for the first time. I am pretty sure this would not have happened without the parent control app.

It was a real win! My son put down his tablet and got on his bike! The standard account lets parents monitor children’s activity without being able to restrict it. The full premium account which I am  evaluating on a trial basis costs £2.99 a month on a rolling monthly subscription. It’s worth it! 

Digital bullet journal on a pen driven tablet

Digital bullet journal on a pen driven tablet

I have been taking and keeping notes on digital devices for most of the last decade and I have explored a number of tools, services, devices and workflows. I have mostly used Evernote and Gmail as a digital information repository until recently when I moved across to OneNote. I have tried and failed to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology and I have learnt about sketchnotes, todo apps, outlines and mindmapping. Starting note taking systems is easy. Reviewing my notes and keeping systems going in a coherent, integrated way has been the difficulty because there were too many inputs and not enough time to stay organised.

When I bought my new Surface 3, I decided to migrate from Evernote to OneNote. OneNote is a great way to capture ideas digitally using a Surface pen. My early attempts to organise my information within and between notes were somewhat incoherent, which put me off wanting to use and review what I had written down. Was there a better way to capture and organise my notes? I think I may have stumbled across an approach to note taking  called bullet journaling that is simple to master, coherent, attractive and enjoyable. The last two factors are particularly important because having fun makes me want to look at my notes later. Not having fun and being confused tends to have the opposite effect.

What is a bullet journal?

A bullet journal is a paper based system developed by designer Ryder Carroll as a low tech way to capture and review tasks, events and information based on a simple key for these different types of information. There is a manual calendar called a monthly log with a page for each month to record special events and tasks that will take place that time and a future log has a shorter one page calendar over a 6 month period to record future events and commitments as an overview. The video below is an introduction to bullet journaling which demonstrates how to organise and write notes following this system in a moleskine paper book.

The video has had nearly two million views and there are a number of bullet journalists out there who are fans of this approach and wish to explain and showcase their creations. What is really noticeable is the beauty, creativity and care that has been taken to produce and maintain these notebooks. It is not just about keeping a list of todos, which are crossed off whenever they are completed. I have seen people keep logs of all sorts of valuable and interesting information including recipes, favourite songs and workout logs. The notebooks I have seen on Youtube are works of art and show how flexible the method can be tailored to meet the diverse needs of whoever is making use of the bullet journal method.

Here are a couple of bullet journal examples.

With this in mind, I decided to try and refine and organise my digital notetaking in OneNote using the bullet journal method. I created 2 sections in my main OneNote notebook. The first section has pages for all monthly and future logs. This is my calendar that I can use to write all over using digital ink. The second section is for daily log entries. I created a page on the first day and wrote simple short bullet points to record tasks, events and other points of information. Whenever, I complete a task, I mark it with a red X. Today, I started to divide the page into 2 columns so the tasks and events are on the left and the ideas and information bullets appear on the right hand side but it is a new system so this aspect of the approach is not yet fixed. At the end of each day, I duplicate the daily note and set it up for the following day. Completed tasks, events and yesterday’s information are all deleted from the new note. Incomplete tasks and events remain in the new note. Therefore, my daily log behaves a lot like sourdough. The part of yesterday’s mix that has not been completed yet roll over into the following day. I have really liked this approach so far because it encourages me to review my notes and to write my reflections and ideas as simple information bullets. Bullet journals for me are very new but they are as much about thinking as they are about action.

Here is a short screencast that shows how I have been using a bullet journal in OneNote.

Reading someone else’s ebook in my own handwriting

Reading someone else’s ebook in my own handwriting

I have just figured out a way of reading ebooks presented in a font based on my own handwriting. Viewing new content in a somewhat familiar form is uncanny and makes the process of reading difficult content more engaging andaccessible. This is how I set up my “handwritten” ebooks on my Surface 3. It isperfectly possible to achieve the same result using slightly different devicesand workflows.

Create and install a “handwritten font”

I downloaded a handwriting PDF template from myscriptfont.com. This template provides a grid to handwrite all the characters. The document is designed to be printed, completed, scanned and uploaded to the site which will process it and generate a ttf font file. The font file can be installed as a font on any Windows, OSX or Linux computer but the devices at my school are locked down so students or teachers cannot make changes to the fonts. It is very likely that students and teachers would need to install the font at home. There is also the logistical problem of how to scan the template sheets in a classroom setting.It will be very chaotic to have 30 students queuing to scan their handwriting template sheets. I filled in my template sheet directly on my device using a Surface Pen and the Drawboard PDF annotation software. The completed template was saved as a PDF, which was uploaded to the site to convert into a computerised font. I downloaded the resulting ttf font, which was easy to install on Windows 10 by simply clicking on the file. The font is now available to every piece of software I use and this includes Word, PowerPoint and Calibre, which is my ebook management tool.

Access ebooks

This post assumes that any “handwritten” ebooks are free of digital rightsmanagement (DRM) copy protection, which means there are no technicalrestrictions to prevent content from being amended and transferred betweensoftware tools and hardware devices. Kindle and Kobo ebooks are hamstrung withcopy protection so this will need to be removed before attempting to change thebook’s font but I am not going to explain how to break such restrictions inthis post or I may face the wrath of the ebook industry. There are a number oflegal ways to acquire ebooks without copy protection such as Wikibooks,Torbooks, O’Reilly Media, Humble Bundle and Project Gutenberg but they will not carry a large range of new popular titles.

An ethical rule of thumb is that downloading pirated books from torrents or using software to remove DRM for the purpose of redistribution is not OK. However, removing copy protection is morally acceptable providing it is on a book one has already purchased and downloaded. Call it fair use to open up a protected ebook to be able to install a font or to view the title on an alternative software or hardware platform. The ebook industry will never endorse such action because it undermines their copy protection schemes but it is unlikely that someone will ever get into trouble for removing the copy protection on a book they have purchased providing they do not go on to resell or redistribute the title they have just “hacked”.

Configure and read ebooks

I use Calibre to manage and configure my ebooks. Ebooks come in a variety of formats but the most widely supported file types are PDF and epub. Epub is my preferred file type because the text flows automatically whenever the text size is changed and this means content should not fall off the screen when you zoom in or enlarge the text. Calibre has a facility to convert ebooks from one format to another and this includes the option to specify the page size, margin and font. Voila! You can see how I setup the ebook “Animal Farm” in this screencast video.

I prefer reading PDFs in Drawboard so I can annotate the text using my Surface pen. I like reading epubs in Freda, because I can setup a night theme so the text is white on a black background. Both reading tools support the use of embedded fonts including “handwriting”.

Links

Myscriptfont

Calibre

Wikibooks

Torbooks

Project Gutenberg

Freda

Drawboard PDF

 

Timeshifting web video for educators

Timeshifting web video for educators

Web video offers almost limitless access to free learning resources providing there is a high speed Internet connection, but schools can have patchy broadband and many services are subject to filters and restrictions. Back in the day (1980s) my teachers used to play us video clips on VHS video recorders. Recording TV footage was a way of time shifting broadcasts so they could be viewed by students at a later date and is seen as fair use of copyright footage that should be otherwise paid for. What is the digital equivalent of time shifting in terms of web video?

Downloading Youtube Videos

Youtube has a vast range of content from software tutorials to documentaries. I sometimes need to download videos whenever I am having trouble playing clips in class. I use the site Savefrom.net to download my clips in a variety of formats including HD and lower resolution video files.

Downloading BBC Iplayer Videos

BBC Iplayer streaming videos expire after a number of days or weeks. The website and apps allow videos to download but they are wrapped in Digital Rights Management (DRM), which automatically deletes the content after 30 days and the software restricts the devices upon which content can be played. A little known loophole is that content streamed to IOS devices uses the RTMP protocol which streams content without DRM copy protection. This means it is possible to capture the stream using suitable software and to keep it as a video file, which can be viewed on any computer without restriction.

I have been using a perl and Ruby on Rails based command line utility called get_iplayer that allows me to download BBC Iplayer footage including TV and radio shows without restriction. The downloaded shows do not expire. It takes a little while to get used to the command line syntax and the highest resolution I tend to be able to download is 720P. The utility works very well and there is even a web based interface but I find the command line easy enough to master. For example, I would enter the following command to download the latest episode of Click

get_iplayer get– http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07ht943/click-designed-in-china-part-two

Time shifting is not attempting to download a web video permanently and it is not circumventing copy protection, because no restrictions are taking place. It is a convenient way to make use of a loophole to save a web video for later viewing on any device.

Affordable screencasting

Affordable screencasting

We live in the era of the app! This means that software users no longer expect to pay hundreds of pounds to acquire new pieces of software given that mobile or web based versions of the same tools are available for free or not very much money. Screencasting tools allow computer users to record video clips of their screen actions, which is very useful for teachers to show others how to do things on a computer. Showing is much easier than telling, but good screencasting tools used to be very expensive and the fully featured professional screen recording tools are still costly. Here are some examples. Camtasia Studio for Windows is £251 including VAT and the Mac version is only £83. Adobe Captivate is £333 even for the teacher and student Windows or Mac edition. Screenflow for OSX is a bargain at £91!

Fear not. There are a number of affordable options, which I use when I want to make screen recordings and I will summarise them in this post.

1. Screencastomatic (Free/ $15 a year)

http://screencast-o-matic.com/home

Screencastomatic is a cross platform browser based screen recording tool that I have been using since 2011. My screencast on handwritten notes was recorded using this tool. The free version lets you capture upto 15 minutes of screen activity and completed videos carry a watermark, which will be good enough for students and casual users. I prefer the premium version of the service, which lets me record videos of indefinite length and the editing tools have more options such as inserting videos and adding overlays.  The recorder also supports picture in picture webcam capture so the face of the speaker can be shown as the video is being recorded. Screencastomatic is used to record and encode screen videos using a Java applet that was downloaded to the browser each time you ran the tool but Java has been criticised heavily as a vector for security breaches and malware. There is still a plug in that needs to be downloaded each time the tool is run but I cannot confirm if this is in fact Java based but I have never had any security concerns running this software.

2. Windows 10 Xbox Game DVR (Free)

Windows 10 has a free Xbox app, which has an inbuilt video clip recorder called Game DVR to capture footage from playing games. The tool does not have any editing facilities beyond save and trim and the recorder does not include the use of a webcam to show the face of the speaker, but it is a free way of creating clips without having to purchase and install additional software.

3. Screencastify

Screencastify is a Chrome plugin that records screen activity on any desktop OS running the Chrome browser and that includes Windows, OSX and Chrome OS. Chromebooks do not support the other screen recording tools. Recording is very similar to using Screencastomatic and the basic free version allows you to capture upto 10 minutes of footage with a watermark overlaid onto the video. This tool also has webcam support. The premium version provides for unlimited capture without a watermark but this will cost 20 Euros as a one off lifetime purchase.

 

4. AZ Screen Recorder (Free)

AZ Screen Recorder at Google Play Store


My smartphone is an unrooted Samsung Galaxy Note 3 running Android 5.01 and it allows me to use this free tool to record footage of apps and screen activity, which is exported as an MP4 file upon the completion of the capture session. It works fine but there are no editing features so footage would have to be edited on another computer after the event.

All of the tools I have described work very well to record screen activity, which is useful for teachers to show and for students to record their learning. Screencastomatic is the only screen recording tool in this list which supports editing such as overlays, trimming and picture in picture. These are features usually reserved for professional software that is very expensive. However, most teachers and students should be happy to use any of these screen recording tools I have reviewed because editing clips can be very time consuming. Capturing footage in one take is more realistic and sustainable in terms of time and effort even if it means the completed video is rough around the edges. That said, my screen recording tool of choice is Screencastomatic because I still like to have the option to make a few basic edits after I have finished capturing footage.

Projecting phone screens in a classroom using Screenmeet

Projecting phone screens in a classroom using Screenmeet

Teachers may sometimes wish to project notes, photographs or an app on to a large screen to show to colleagues or students. IOS and Android phones and tablets can be connected via cables that plug into the HDMI or VGA slots of the projector or large screen monitor. IOS also supports wireless transmission of the screen contents to a connected dongle or set top box such as an Apple TV or Chromecast. This can be expensive and a ceiling mounted projector may not be accessible to a busy teacher especially if they are teaching in a classroom shared with other colleagues.

I was able to show an app to my class without such cables, dongles or set top boxes. I installed an app on my Android device called Screenmeet, which showed my phone display to a webpage. I logged on to this page on my teacher’s workstation that is connected to the projector. I am using my own 4G connection so sharing my device’s display in this way drains the battery, uses up data and there is a lag though it was not too noticeable.

My students were fascinated about how I was able to do this and it opened up an engaged discussion about the process at the end of the lesson. I have recorded a  short video showing how Screenmeet works and I think it is a useful tool in a classroom setting.

Why write digital handwritten notes

Why write digital handwritten notes

My last post described a number of different workflows educators could explore to create digital handwritten notes –  the how. This post considers the why, but it is not suggesting handwriting digital notes is a magical elixir that will instantly solve all problems related to teaching and learning. Rather it is another tool that teachers could choose to embrace in a small or large way depending on inclination, time, facilities, skill level and a willingness to experiment.

Here is a handwritten mind map I just created on my Surface 3 using a drawing tool called Mischief that I am trying out at the moment. I did not mention this in my last post but it is a drawing tool aimed at artists who draw comic books and it allows me to zoom in or out, has beautifully formed digital inking and supports layers.

I experimented with hand writing digital notes when I first got an Ipad five years ago and it was heavily influenced by my readings of Tony Buzan who developed mind mapping. Since then I have read Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes book which argues why doodling and sketching is a great way of taking notes when listening to a talk or learning new information and I have expressed similar ideas in my own way.

Fun

Handwriting notes is fun. If you have fun learning something then teachers and students are going to have energy to perform this activity more.

Creative

I am not an artist but drafting handwritten notes allows me to express my creativity and even develop it even when I am doing something as ordinary as creating a worksheet. Creating hand drawn resources with colour, shaded boxes, inked text and sometimes images is a way of scratching the creativity itch. Working digitally has the added advantage of being able to press the undo button whenever I make an error.

Models student work

Errors and rough edges can be quite useful to model the sort of rough edged work that students can and should produce day in day out rather than slick PowerPoints and Word documents. Handwritten digital notes may look rough and artisanal but they can also be used visually to model high standards of presentation and effective note taking, which students should emulate in their exercise books.

Quicker to produce/ Digital files can be shared

This is a workflow issue. I can create and distribute a digital handwritten handout at the last moment relatively seamlessly. For example, I recently used OneNote on my Surface 3 to write out the mark scheme for an end of year test. The completed note was automatically saved into a notebook that was accessible to students as a web address, which I shared to them by launching the notebook on student workstations using the IT classroom control software AB Tutor. Drafting, saving, printing, copying and distributing a conventional worksheet would have been more complicated and time consuming.

No copy and paste

Inked notes have to be read, which is very useful when I am sharing code with students for programming activities. This is a good example of why no copy and paste is desireable when sharing digital information with students. They have to read through the examples, become familiar with what the syntax means and type in the code for themselves getting it to work. Interpreting handwritten notes such as computer code takes a lot more processing than simple computer text and the extra work helps students learn and internalise new skills and knowledge.

Better memory retention

Mike Rohde argues that sketchnoting is a multi modal activity that engages the hands, eyes, ears and brain all at the same time and this helps students to improve their recall compared with typing on a laptop or no notes. This argument is supported by research that suggests students who take handwritten notes have greater recall compared with those who use a computer. I found a number of articles offering such evidence such as this 2014 piece from the Guardian which states:

Drawing each letter by hand improves our grasp of the alphabet because we really have a “body memory”, Gentaz adds. “Some people have difficulty reading again after a stroke. To help them remember the alphabet again, we ask them to trace the letters with their finger. Often it works, the gesture restoring the memory.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/16/cognitive-benefits-handwriting-decline-typing

Educators are not necessarily trying to improve recall to pass exams but we are always learning new information especially with a new or ever changing subject taught upto A-Level.

Personalised learning

One of the reasons handwritten notes can be effective as learning resource from the point of view of a teacher or student is that they can be personalised much more than generic PowerPoints or Word documents. Teachers can give their resources some personality and make the document memorable when it is tailored to meet the needs of the student. Students making notes can add graphical flourishes such as colour, borders, arrows and doodles to make the document into something they would like to look at later.

In short, handwriting digital notes is a useful, effective learning activity for teachers and students. I will sign off with a screenshot summarising Mike Rohde’s arguments for effective sketchnoting that are more or less analogous to any other form of handwriting digital notes.

Links

Digital Handwriting for Teachers

Sketchnote Notebook