Tag Archives: edupunk

Hacking Kinect

I never really thought much about Microsoft’s Kinect until I saw what hackers were doing with it.  A story in the New York Times outlines how a designer and senior editor at Make magazine posted a $3000 bounty for the first person to post an open-source hack of the Kinect interface.  Huzzah!  In fact, I’m still not that impressed with it — 3D drawings are cool, but will they help me teach English? — but I’m thrilled that hackers big and small are poking around under the hood.

Interestingly, Johnny Chung Lee, who became famous for his TED talk where he described hacking a Wiimote to act like an interactive whiteboard, is involved in the development of Kinect.  Microsoft were so impressed with his skills on the Wii-based IWB and other projects they hired him.  He is reportedly very happy to see hackers taking on Kinect in the way he took on Wii a couple of years ago.  If a hacker can squeeze an interactive whiteboard out of a $40 Wiimote, what will come out of the $150 Kinect system?

Will this technology help us teach ESL and EFL?  It’s not easy to see how, at least not immediately.  But prepare for a giant step forward in how we interface with computers in the next few years.  Interactive whiteboards are just the beginning.  You can always show your students this video and ask them to predict the future (in English).

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The Good Old Days

meccano close-up

My four-year-old and I have been regularly tuning in to James May’s Toy Stories on BBC America.  Truth be told, I watched all of the episodes myself and now we have been watching the reruns together.  She loves Thomas the Train so we started with the episode on model trains and have since made it a weekly ritual.

Each week, James May, of Top Gear fame, takes a different toy that was popular before the advent of video games and reintroduces it to the British public through a large scale stunt.  Examples include building a full-scale house out of Lego, a 3-mile-long slot-car track following one of Britain’s first racetracks, and a 10-mile-long model train track following an old seaside rail route.

A Meccano bridge.

A bridge made of Meccano.

Most recently, we watched the episode on Meccano, a toy construction set made of metal strips, nuts and bolts, and assorted gears.  I had a set as a kid and it was a real challenge.  To be honest, I was more into Lego, but later became much more interested in Meccano-like nuts and bolts.

One of the Meccano aficionados that May talks to points out several reasons that the toy is no longer as popular as it was around the world wars when, perhaps not coincidentally, the world looked much more like Meccano.  I have paraphrased them, if not quoted them directly, below:

  • Mecanno is metal.  Today’s medium is plastic.
  • Mecanno is angular.  Today’s things are compound curves.
  • You can repair it by changing out one of the bits.  Today we replace whole units, which are designed to be disposable.
  • He concludes, “It is out of kilter with modern life.”

As an educator who likes to adapt technology to my needs and the needs of my students, I am a bit discouraged by the fact that most technology has evolved along these lines.  Not long ago, machines and even computers were designed so that the user could repair them if necessary.  Now things are designed so that they are easy to use, but we are discouraged from “looking under the hood.”  Even computer games, programmed by the user a generation ago, are now typically very difficult to adapt and modify.

What are we losing by not tinkering with things and learning how to repair them ourselves?  What are the implications for our students if we tell them, “Just use it, don’t worry about how it works?”

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

One of the saddest parts of the Meccano episode, at least to me, was when May visits the new Meccano factory to reveal how their new toys incorporate remote-controlled cars and robots to which Meccano pieces can be attached.  In fact, one of the Meccano designers argues that today’s kids need to have simpler toys.

Clearly, I’m a person who likes to make things.  I’m not saying everyone should make their own houses, cars, and food (though I like to).  But by conceding that we can not or should not, what are we losing?  And by relaying this message to our children and our students, in what ways are we limiting them and their curiosity?

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Mischievous Mouses

mouse locked by chain

Unlock your mouse!

I occasionally get emails from people looking for a little exposure for a new product or service.  Excluding the copious spam, I do appreciate the interest in my blog, though most of these messages miss the mark.  I won’t write about something unless I actually see it as useful.  Fortunately, I recently received something useful in my inbox.  From Microsoft.  It’s called Mouse Mischief.

After watching the video on the homepage, I’m intrigued.  Mouse Mischief allows a teacher to connect up to 15 mice to one computer.  If each student has a wireless mouse they can all interact on the screen at the same time.  Each mouse can have a different cursor, so a teacher can ask a question and have students mouse-over the answer.  Students can also perform other mouse functions like drawing and clicking from their seats.  Teachers can even track which students answer correctly as well as how often and how quickly.

I like this idea because it’s a bit like clickers, which give each student the ability to answer a question by pushing a button, and a bit like an interactive whiteboard, which allow students to interact collaboratively with the screen.

Of course, moving a mouse on top of a desk is not the same experience as actually touching a touchscreen.  And wireless mice aren’t free, though Microsoft conveniently links to some which start at about $20 —  plan on about $300 to be fully outfitted, assuming you already have a computer and a projector in your classroom.  Plus the software, which is free to download, only works with certain versions of some of their products (PowerPoint 2007 and 2010, for example).

Microsoft seems to be taking the right path by encouraging teachers to upload their best lesson plans so that teachers can collaborate on the best uses of this technology.  Will it be the next “big thing”?  I’m not sure it will, but it’s an innovative use of an old technology.  And if using one mouse is good, I’d like to see what can be done with 10 or 12 of them.

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OutSMARTed

computer with a dunce cap

I just got a letter (dated June 14) from the folks at SMART, makers of SMARTboards, etc.  I’ve included the full text of the letter below, in case the link doesn’t work.  It wasn’t sent to me personally, but rather sent out to licensed users of their products.

As I have mentioned before, I really like SMART hardware, but SMARTboards are expensive and not very portable.  I’ve also documented a $50 DIY alternative, based on the Nintendo Wii controller, which has fewer features but can fit in a large pocket.  The SMART software is also very good, but there are several alternatives and workarounds that can accomplish many of the same things.

This puts SMART in a difficult position.  They have been selling their hardware and giving away their software for “free”.  (It’s free the way a drink is free at Taco Bell if you buy a taco.)  Unfortunately for SMART, edupunks who have access to an LCD projector can build the equivalent hardware for $50.  I’ve been told from other people who have built their own interactive whiteboards that the best possible combination is the “free” SMART software on the more portable DIY hardware, which works with any LCD projector.  So, now SMART is trying to clarify that their software is only “free” if you buy or use their hardware.

This seems like a losing battle for SMART.  The RIAA’s approach to penalize consumers who copied music did not make sense but offering reasonably priced songs on sites like iTunes did.  Hollywood was heading the same direction by threatening uploaders of copyrighted material until a compromise was reached that gives the copyright holder a share of revenue generated by ads next to their videos.  Now that is smart.

What is the solution for SMART?  Well, they could start by being clearer about the price of software — it isn’t free.  They could also be clearer about how to purchase SMART software to use on other hardware (so called “Restricted Products,” below).  They seem to be doing this in this letter, but is that it?  I understand SMART’s desire to protect the products they have developed, but treating customers and users of SMART products as scofflaws does not engender much good will.

Our college just got a SMARTboard and two other interactive whiteboards made by SMART’s competitors and put them in the same room so that they can be evaluated head-to-head-to-head.  I’ve suggested setting up a $50 Wii-based version as well.  May the best interactive whiteboard win.

June 14, 2010

To all SMART customers:

SMART Technologies has been investing in SMART Notebook™ collaborative learning software for 15 years. We update and improve our software regularly based on feedback from our users, and we are currently developing version 11. Soon we will release a service pack for version 10 that will be accompanied by a revised licensing agreement, which addresses in more detail the permitted use of SMART Notebook software.

It has come to our attention that misleading or incorrect information about the use of SMART Notebook software is being provided. In advance of the software update, we are writing to confirm the permitted use of SMART Notebook software to help you make informed choices.

When you purchase any of the following eligible “Licensed Product,”
· SMART Board™ interactive whiteboard
· SMART Board interactive display
· SMART Response™ interactive response system
· SMART Podium™ interactive pen display
· SMART Document Camera

a SMART Notebook license is included with the product and you are permitted to use the software on any computer connected to these Licensed Products. SMART Notebook software may also be used on a reasonable number of computers associated with your district or school that are not connected to a pen or touch-enabled devices. This permits teachers to use the software at home to create lessons for use on their Licensed Products in the classroom.

The license agreement does not, however, normally permit the use of SMART Notebook software when a computer is connected to a restricted pen- or touch-enabled device (“Restricted Product”). Restricted Products include, but are not limited to, any touch-enabled or pen-enabled devices that are not on the Licensed Products list above, including the following:
· Interactive whiteboards
· Interactive projector systems
· Display screens
· Screen digitizing devices or slates

To provide options for our customers and enable access to .notebook files by anyone, anywhere, on any device, including Restricted Products, we offer the SMART Notebook Express™ web application, found at express.smarttech.com.

If you have any questions regarding or wish to inquire about use of SMART Notebook software with Restricted Products, please contact SMART at 1.866.518.6791 and follow the voice prompt to press 7 for SMART Notebook license. You can also send us an e-mail at info@smarttech.com with “SMART Notebook license” in the subject line.

Yours truly,
Patric Nagel
Vice President, Sales – Americas

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Filed under Projects

Edupunk: Lego Printer

It’s a bit random, but this YouTube video of a DIY Lego printer was recommended to me by a friend.  (Thanks, Lorrie!)  It’s not directly related to ESL, but it would probably give your students something to talk about.  I’ve always enjoyed seeing projects like this ever since building a $50 Interactive Whiteboard.  With the rise of Instructables.com and other open source and DIY sites, it’s amazing what people are able to build for themselves.  Having a team of Lego people “controlling” the printer is a really nice touch.

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Phone Your Blog

phone

Who ya gonna call?

I’ve had this WordPress blog for about two years and have had blogs with Blogger in the past.  Both are good services, but I like the WordPress interface a bit better as well as the ability to have several static pages (inspiration, projects, and resources, for example).  Recently, WordPress announced a feature that Blogger had years ago but cancelled: the ability to phone your blog.

Once you’ve signed up for a WordPress blog, you can configure a special number that you can call and record a message that will appear on your blog.  I don’t plan to use this feature on this blog, but there are several reasons that this feature is mentioning.

First, this is a way to create digital recordings without any special equipment: no microphone, digital audio recorder, computer, mp3 player — just a phone.  The recordings can be downloaded, shared, and edited in the same way as any other digital recording.

Second, a student in an ESL class can make a recording and then others in the class can comment on it. This could be feedback on an impromptu speech topic, a dialog between two or more students, or any other oral interaction.  Comments could be based on language used, content, or both.  Many options are possible when it is this easy to share a digital audio recording.

All of this is possible with some content management systems (there are plugins available for Moodle, for example) but otherwise pulling all of the technology together to make this happen can be a bit of work, all of which is streamlined by simply calling your blog.

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