February 2015

Educational Technology

This quarter I’m taking an educational technology class that focuses on developing new technologies for child development. It’s been fascinating learning about how much tech there is out there to help children in all stages of development, from toddler to teen. It’s also startling to see how much content parents have to sift through, and knowing what constitutes as “good” or “bad technology. What, for example, makes a “good” storytelling iPad app? Can Neopets teach your child about economics? Does FanFiction instill a sense of authorship and creativity in children? There have been so many uses of technology that we have explored in my class, and I’m hoping to share the best metrics for each tech category.

iPad Apps

Many iPad apps nowadays are geared towards helping improve child literacy. There are apps that read aloud to children, that highlight words or provide simple dictionaries. Even classic books, such as Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” and the Sesame Street “The Monster at the End of this Book” have been upgraded with interactive pages and engaging animations. While there are many features packed into these apps, there are a few things to look out for when trying to find the cream of the crop.

  1. Look for apps that promote guided participation. Research has shown that parents who actively interact with their child while reading help improve their child’s literacy rather than if the child were left reading on their own. Not only is this good bonding time, but the parent can help keep the child on task, explain new words or correct mispronunciations, not all of which an app can do.
  2. Make sure the app doesn’t have a “TV” feel. Some apps just seem like a mini TV show with subtitles. Stay away from these. Ideally you want to have words highlighted and the ability to turn pages freely when navigating the book/app.
  3. Look for age appropriate content. Some book apps are made for slightly older children. Just make sure that the book you want your child to read fits in with their attention span (isn’t incredibly long or too low-level).

These are my personal top three pieces of advice when sifting through reading apps. And remember, it’s always good to limit screen time as well. You don’t want your child to navigate away from the app and use “reading” time for game time!

Tech Toys

Think Goldiblocks or Lego Mindstorms. Kits or electronic toys that promote digital education are on the rise. Children ages 5+ can now find some sort of way to engage with electronics in casual play, which exposes them to relatively complex concepts at a young age. When looking for tech toys, keep a few things in mind:

  1. How reusable is it? Is there one configuration to build a device, or can the tech toy be modified or rearranged to be something else? The reusability factor not only encourages further use, but also helps develop creativity.
  2. How much tech is there? A toy that only offers one circuit for a light bulb decoration isn’t really a tech toy. Make sure there’s enough material and content to keep your kid learning!

Online Websites

Believe it or not, there are actually some websites that are better for your children’s development than others. But it all depends on how they end up using these sites. For example, Neopets, Webkinz and Club Penguin are great sites to engage your child in social play, responsibility and commerce understanding. FanFiction.net is a great place for tweens to develop their writing and creativity skills. However, as a parent you have to keep tabs on your child while they play. I don’t have metrics really for this category, but here some suggested sites that are better than others for kids of all ages.

  1. PBS Kids – this is a great site for younger users looking for fun games with an educational component. Minimal advertising and popular characters make this site a go to for many parents.
  2. scratch.edu – this is an online version of the popular Scratch programming environment. Kids can create their own games with visual programming, and then share their creations with others online.
  3. Pottermore – if your kids like Harry Potter, then this site is fantastic. There are community elements such as house competitions and forums, interactive stories from the book, and fun mini games that tie into the original series. Definitely a fun way to get your kid to explore their favorite books from an interactive angle.
  4. National Geographic Kids – all kinds of cool articles, activities and games for your kids to browse, relating to the natural world around us and vetted by National Geographic.

These are just a few sites I’m aware of. As with any technology, it’s important to limit screen time and make sure to monitor your child on whatever site they end up using.

There are tons of other educational tech tools around, and if you want to add to this brief list, feel free to leave a comment!


Staying on Task (with a little help)

I’ve hit the mid-quarter slump. It’s week 6. Midterms, assignments and extracurriculars are piling up. Goodness knows how I found the time to write this post (it’s about 2am on a Wednesday… err Thursday)! So how am I keeping sane these days? Well, with a little help from technology of course. Now before I get too deep into this post, I must admit that I do own a paper planner. It’s a physical object that reminds me of all the things I have to do this week, with proper color coding for assignments and classes. But I also make use of several smaller tech automations to make life a little easier.

A new type of software I’m trying is productivity timer based applications. The Pomodoro method has caught on, and now everyone wants to use timers to boost their productivity. I’m trying a new app on my phone that sorts my tasks into categories, such as homework, social media or gym. When I start a task in these categories, I tap the correct category and start a timer. When I’m done with a task, I stop the timer. Over time, the hope is that I’ll see where I’m spending most of my time and adjust my tasks accordingly.

One of my most often used helpers is the reminders app on my phone. I have an iPhone, which has a pretty good reminders app built in. I feel sure Android and Windows phones have similar native reminder apps. If you want something a little more specific to this need, try Any.do, which has mobile and desktop support, along with a beautifully simple design. Reminder apps are great for little things such as making sure you remember to call someone at a specific time the next day. And since it’s mobile, you’ll most likely carry your phone with you at the time you need reminding. As a personal note, I only use reminders for short term, small tasks. If you need something to handle a bunch of tasks, then it’s time to move outside your reminders app.

The next big thing I use to manage all my to-dos is lists. Really. I make lists and I stick to them. And they must have check boxes. Checking off a task you’ve completed really makes you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot, furthering your cycle of productivity and accomplishment. For this type of task management, apps like Evernote or Wunderlist are great. You can categorize by different types of tasks and color code your notes. Again, both these platforms are available on mobile and desktop. I’ve personally started using Trello, which has different boards that you make “cards” for. These cards can contain lists, pictures, attachments, whatever. Think of it as Pinterest for productivity. Trello is a pretty powerful tool (they have a business version), and also supports desktops and mobile phones. These task managing platforms are great for short and long term goals.

Finally come calendars. Calendars are good for keeping track of your daily, weekly and monthly schedule. Additionally, calendars are more about knowing the things you have planned for your day instead of keeping a list of tasks for you to check off. Many people have preferences on the digital calendars that they use. I have friends who swear by Google Calendars; I know many work places use them. However, in keeping in line with my love for mobile accessibility, I use the built in calendar on my phone (iCalendar) because I can use Siri (or whatever personal voice assistant you have) to quickly create an event by speaking it. It makes scheduling less painful when you just talk your events to your phone.

So those are my few organizational helpers that keep me sane at college. Do you have any favorite task tools?

The Maker Movement

Do you have a new year’s resolution to be more creative? To try something out of your comfort zone or learn something new? Are you interested in making some awesome, easy projects that combine technology and your other hobbies or interests? If so, read on! I’m really excited to talk about this week’s topic, which is putting a spotlight on the recent Maker Movement. What is the Maker Movement? Well, I’d like to think of it as a movement of homebrew hackers and artists using technology to create useful, inspiring and innovative projects. These projects are generally inexpensive and come with a fair amount of support through tutorials (written and video) and documentation. There’s a whole community of Makers constantly creating new guides on how to make LED cubes or self-contained watering systems or even customizable digital clocks. So if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty with a little bit of hardware and software, you can make pretty much anything with just a few set of tools. And even if you’ve never wired up a breadboard or written a line of code, many tutorials online provide code that you can just copy/paste and have step by step instructions on how to plug and wire together all the parts you need. If you can read, you can pretty much do any of the projects that are well documented online.

arduinoThis quarter I’m taking several classes involving the intersection of hardware and software. I was exposed to the Arduino (a microprocessor) for an electrical engineering class I’m taking. I’m also using it for a pretty cool remote vaccine monitoring project I’m working with a group to create for the non-profit PATH. Within a day or two of experimenting, I had a very solid grasp on how to use the Arduino and all the crazy sensors it came with; it’s not hard at all to learn with the Arduino! Many kits even come with special projects and guides to get you started. Best of all, the Arduino is pretty cheap. For around $30 you can get a powerful microprocessor that will be the core of many homebrew projects. And since the Arduino is so popular, whatever project idea you may have will likely already have been done. That makes super easy to get started and making!

One of the best resources for learning about the Arduino is its website, www.arduino.cc. Here you can look up different Arduinos and various sensors you may need for your project. There is a strong membership community and tons of examples and project ideas to get you started! For more awesome project idea websites (not limited to the Arduino) with detailed tutorials, check out instructables.com, adafruit.com or makezine.com. All of these websites are pretty heavily intertwined with the Maker Movement. Even if you don’t use an Arduino, they have lots of other hands on projects you can test out!

Making isn’t just about technology, it’s about creating something awesome with untraditional materials to perform some sort of functionality that fulfills a need. That could mean you design an artistic piece that makes people happy, or a device that automates your home and reduces your stress. So I encourage you to go out, to experiment and come up with any crazy idea that you think you might want to build. Just make sure it’s technically and physically feasible! Then build it. Use strange or uncommon materials to get to the goal of your project, whatever it may be. The creativity making allows is incredible. And soon enough, you might just get hooked. And that’s all it takes to join the Maker Movement.