Teacher Tools Day 4 – SharePoint

sharepointTeachers are constantly faced with the necessity of posting something, be it pictures, lessons, pdf files, or especially videos to the web and then allowing students access to those resources. SharePoint, from Microsoft, is the best tool for that job, bar none. While a Google drive or other cloud service may allow you to share a file and grant permissions to your students, SharePoint simplifies the process and takes sharing documents to a new level.

What is SharePoint and do I have it?

Microsoft SharePoint is a business server application that allows users to post and share almost any type of file or media and then grant access to that material to anyone they choose.  The application integrates with Microsoft Office in a way that Google drive or other cloud storage applications can not hope to match.  It allows the user to post documents, set permissions, and then edit directly with Word, Excel, or other applications simply by dragging and dropping onto a webpage or folder.  SharePoint can be mapped as a shared drive to bypass the browser or it can be accessed as a web page.  SharePoint takes care of hosting and sharing video so that putting content on YouTube, which is often blocked in schools, or filled with inappropriate images, is not necessary.  SharePoint allows for the creation of sites for groups, teams, classes, and other units, and allows the creator to set permissions for those units down to the document level.  When combined with OneNote Classroom Creator, SharePoint becomes a Learning Management System in it’s own right.  It is fully customizable and allows users to create and publish apps that others can access if they are given the necessary permissions.  In short, SharePoint is a great solution for document control for any type of data.  SharePoint also contains a social media piece that allows students to collaborate and communicate while still being fully monitored and controlled by the network administrator.  SharePoint is fully accessible from outside the school network as long as login credentials are available making it an excellent way for parents to monitor the work their students are doing.  SharePoint is fully integrated into Outlook and can be used to create calendar entries for students to post assignments and reminders.  Finally, SharePoint is easily integrated with any school web site to allow secure access for anyone with school login credentials.

The online version of SharePoint is usually included with an educational subscription to Office 365.  If your school has Office for all of its students and teachers (and it should) then you very likely have SharePoint available.  The easiest way to find out is to ask your network administrator.  If not, then he is also the person to lobby for it.

I am often asked why I prefer Microsoft Office to the free online Google applications that offer similar services.  I am preparing my students for college, and/or the business world.  They will very likely not see Google docs again after High School.  By far the majority of the  market share of business document creation software belongs to Microsoft Office.  Why not start now teaching them something they will use throughout their careers?  Most corporate workers in America will be familiar with SharePoint, Office, and the other common Microsoft business applications.  It seems a waste to teach them something that they will use only temporarily, or at least, that is my opinion.

Teacher Tools – Day 3

htmlToday my picks for useful teacher tools are both related. HTML stands for Hyper-text Markup Language. It is the code used to create web pages, among other things. The code allows us to present text and other visible features through an HTML aware browser and allows us to create links to other documents using the anchor tag.

Every teacher should be able to write basic HTML and know the common tags.  Teachers should also be familiar with creating and uploading web documents to a site.  HTML is becoming the most common way to present content to students both in the classroom and remotely.  LMS systems like Canvas or Moodle all use HTML to present content and they allow you to edit HTML tags in order to more accurately control the material that you present in your classroom pages.  Being able to control the placement of text around an image, for example, is important to the presentation of your material.  If your pages are difficult or uncomfortable to read, it is likely that students will not read them.  You owe it to yourself and your students to learn the basics of HTML and web design and to use those tools as you create your materials.

The other part of this partnership is the use of Cascading Style Sheets to format and control the appearance of your material.  It is an established design principle that content and formatting should be separate.  Having the information in a different document from the formatting instructions allows you to change the appearance of your material without having to modify, or even touch, your material.  You can also edit your content without having to wade through presentation markup.  The current web model uses a markup technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to accomplish this feat.  The content is stored in an HTML document as basically paragraphs of text with no formatting.  The paragraphs are tagged with class and id names that allow the author to assign presentation information even down to a single letter of a word or sentence.  CSS allows us to separate and update presentation and appearance for an HTML document without having to disturb the content and without having to search through the content for formatting tags.  To become a better teacher in the 21st century classroom you should commit right now to learning at least the basics of HTML and CSS and then establishing an online presence.  Build an educational philosophy page, a curriculum vitae, or a blog site to discuss the things that are important to you.

Favorite Computer Science Teacher Tools – Day 2

dell745On day 2 of our investigation into useful tools for teaching Computer Science I would like to point out a web site that makes teaching several different aspects of Computer Science a breeze…CodeAcademy.com

codeacademyCodeAcademy.com is one of the most useful and user friendly coding sites on the Internet. It also contains a huge amount of free content. I realize that the purpose of most sites is to generate income and I applaud that. Generating income is the motive force that keeps quality content in production. However, it is nice to share the wealth and give away quality material to draw people to your site. CodeAcademy has this down pat. One can learn Java, HTML, CSS, JavaScript in various flavors, and SQL just to name a few. I use CodeAcademy.com in most of my classes, even some that might not otherwise involve code. It is possible to set up classes and monitor the progress your students are making as well as to view the material they are learning. As a supplemental source of material it just can’t be beat. Thank you to CodeAcademy.com for providing such a useful amount of free material for my students.

imagineThe next item on my all-time list of favorite tools is a program (not software) created by Microsoft and labeled Imagine. This program, recently known as Dreamspark, provides professional grade coding tools and software to students for, basically, no charge. Where else can a high school student, learning to code, find a copy of Visual Studio Professional with a legal license, at no charge. The school or academy that uses the program pays a token fee of $99 per year and can make items like Visual Studio, SQL Server, and many other professional Microsoft tools available to their students at no cost to the student.

Well, that is day 2 of our top 10 list.  Only 3 more days to go until completion.  If you have questions about any of the programs or tools listed, OR if you would like to add your favorite application to the mix, please use the comment section below, and don’t forget to “like” and subscribe if this sort of topic seems worthwhile to you.

Computer Science Tools Review

9ipArbkiEReviewing the live adaptation of Ghost in the Shell has put me in the mood to present some other reviews and so without further adieu I will be presenting my Top Ten for Computer Science Teaching Tools. These are presented in no particular order or ranking and I would be very happy to have someone add to the list in the comments section below if I miss one of your favorite tools or programs.

greenfootOne of my personal favorite programming tools will always be the Educational Java IDE Greenfoot.  I believe that this is one of the most comprehensive and useful combinations of curriculum and tools available for teaching Java and the basic concepts of Object Oriented Programming.  Notice I added both of those qualifiers.  There are certainly more effective programming interfaces and some tools that make learning the basics of programming simpler but to combine both of those things into a single application, Greenfoot can not be beaten.  The program creator, Michael Kölling, is first and foremost, an educator rather than simply a programmer, and this is apparent in the way that he designed the Greenfoot application to bring out the basic tenets of programming, and specifically Object Oriented design while hiding much of the complicated boiler-plate code that students will get to soon enough in Eclipse or Net Beans.  Rather than begin in a procedural mode teaching loops and variables and other constructs and then bringing class into it  (There I go…bringing class into it) Michael starts off with proper class design principles from the beginning and teaches constructs along with OOP design.  The best time to build a mind-set, in this case, for Object Oriented Programming, is in the beginning and that is exactly what Greenfoot does.

arduinoMy next favorite tool is the combination programming environment and hardware that make up the Arduino system. In order to get students interested in programming and code creation we need to get them engaged. Nothing creates interest and focuses attention better than creating something that works. Lights flash. servos turn. robots move. All of these things tie the attention of the young programmer onto the task in a manner that does not seem at all tedious or difficult. With the Arduino programming environment concepts like functions, methods, variables, loops, and program logic can be taught in bite-sized portions that don’t overwhelm the young programmer. Also Arduino provides an avenue to teach fundamentals of engineering, circuit design, and making in general. Considering the price of the hardware, this is an excellent investment for a part of your classroom budget each year.

With that, the first edition of my Top Ten Computer Science Teaching Tools comes to a close.  I will continue the list tomorrow and try to finish by the end of the week.  If you have suggestions or comments, please list them below.  Also, “likes” are appreciated.


A Review of the new Ghost is the Shell Movie

GhostInTheShellAs my loyal readers will know, I have had occasion to use this space to review movies. There was a great deal of discussion recently concerning the,  then, up-coming live adaptation of the classic manga, Ghost in the Shell, written and drawn by Masamune Shirow.  While the manga presents itself as lighthearted and moderately comedic, the anime, produced in 1995, is a gripping and dramatic adaptation of the story.  It is this anime that most fans point to as the definitive telling of the tale.  Much of the buzz around the ‘net consisted of concerned fans hoping that Hollywood might treat the original source material with respect and allow the compelling and fascinating story to play out on the big screen as the author intended it.  If you were one of those fans with concerns along those lines, then rest assured that your fears were well founded and fully realized within the first 45 seconds of the film.  The Ghost in the Shell live adaptation suffers from the very thing that makes up it’s subject matter:  it completely lacks any soul at all.

By way of plot review, the original story involves a young woman, Motoko Kusanagi, whose mind has been implanted into a cybernetic or cyborg body.  While every part of her is mechanical, her mind, soul, and spirit remain human.  She, according to various sources across the Internet, was injured in a plane crash and then, as her body failed, was placed into the cybernetic shell.  She volunteered for government service as a way to pay for the maintenance and upkeep on her cyborg body, again, according to the original anime but she also seems to be motivated by the needs of society.  It seems that sacrificing self to benefit the collective is a theme that appears quite regularly in Japanese literature.  At any rate, she is employed by Section 9, a division of the Government Intelligence Community tasked with protecting the public from various threats.  As well as possessing formidable physical and tactical skills, the Major, as she is called, is expert in all things technical and digital.  She is a master hacker/programmer, and as such, often gets called in when cases involve technological details.

The story occurs at some time in the near future when mankind has perfected the ability to combine electronics, mechanics, and the human body.  Nearly everyone in the story is enhanced to some degree, with the notable exception of the recently recruited former policeman Togusa.  The team is assigned to track down and capture a ghost hacker, someone who can hack into a human mind via the network connections in the cybernetic bodies, and control the actions and thoughts of those so compromised.  In order to prevent spoiling a fantastic story for those who have not had the pleasure, I will say no more about the plot, except that it is engaging and speaks eloquently to the question of what defines a person.  Sadly, the current live-action offering did not ever even wave at this question, much less speak to it.

As many fans feared, the screen-writers and directors of the live-action film pulled bits and pieces of plot from various points along the narrative of the original anime and mashed them together into a non-challenging, politically correct, and quite frankly boring mess of a story that was distinctly western in flavor.  All of the motivations from the original work that were specifically Asian in nature were completely skipped over, or so under-emphasized as to be invisible.  In fact, the Major’s name was not used until the last 10 minutes of the film.  She was given a western name and no reference to her being Asian was ever made, barring the creation of a contrived mother who never appeared in the original story, and was, once again, a specifically western idea.

The original anime is considered to be, among other things, an action/adventure story.  The plot is fast moving and barrels from once action scene to the next with the speed of a packet traveling through the net.  The live-action film lacked a great deal of its name-sake, action.  Aside from a few set-pieces taken from the original film and stitched together in no particular order, the movie consisted of a great deal of dialog.  I felt stifled in exposition.  Video is a VISUAL medium.  Don’t tell the story, SHOW IT.

Don’t get me wrong, I have adored Scarlett Johansson since I saw her in The Island  with Ewan MacGregor.  She is the only person I can see as the Avenger’s Black Widow and she is, in general, a very talented actor.  However, the Major is, according to the original anime and especially the original manga, supposed to have the appearance of a much younger woman, and later, a young girl, as her cybernetic body is damaged and must be replaced.  I think the casting director might have taken that into consideration when filling the role of the major.  Also, in my opinion, the character of Batau was poorly handled.  He is shown in the beginning with normal eyes and does not acquire his signature enhancements until much later in the film.  This is not in keeping with the original material.

All in all I felt disappointment as I walked out of the theater.  I had high hopes for this movie and those hopes were dashed on the jagged rocks of Hollywood’s desperate need to make sure that everything produced by a major studio fits the long establish, and boring, mold.  Sadly they lived down to my expectations.