Super Simple Timelines


I’m just getting around to writing about this, and I’m probably late to the party as far as this product is concerned, but I’ve discovered a very simple, very effect way to create timelines for websites.

Back in the 1990s Tom Snyder Productions made some of the coolest EdTech software around. One of my favorites was Timeliner. Users could input dates and events, then print out long timelines on fan-fold printer paper with a dot-matrix printer. Along with Print Shop, it was one of my go-to tools for classroom printing.

Timeliner is still around, and has been updated to take advantage of modern technology. I haven’t played with it in ages, so I don’t know what the new version has, and, quite frankly, I no longer need to. I’ve found a much, much better (and free!) product in Northwestern University’s Knight Lab’s Timeline JS. (more…)

Fun with Small Electronics

Small Electronics 2

Left to right, a MaKey Makey, A Picoboard, and a Raspberry Pi

I’ve been having fun with the MaKey MaKey. However, it has some limitations. As the name implies, it can substitute for any key. However, there are some limitations. If you want to get into sensors and other extended capabilities, you need more stuff. You can use the device as an Arduino, but you would need to add light sensors or microphones, etc. I decided to expand my capabilities. I added two more components to my collection – a Picoboard and a Raspberry Pi. I’ll start by describing the three boards and their capabilities, and will describe specific projects in later posts.



Since I’ve already described the MaKey MaKey, I’ll start with the Picoboard. The Picoboard contains a series of sensors, including a slider switch, push button, light sensor, audio sensor. These sensors are based on electrical resistance, and return a value based on that amount of resistance. There are four inputs for alligator clips that can be connected to conductive material, kind of like the MaKey MaKey.


Since the MaKey MaKey substitutes for any key, it will work with just about any program, but it’s a perfect match for the Scratch programming language. The PicoBoard, on the other hand, will only work with Scratch, as far as I know. In fact, the PicoBoard was originally known as the Scratch Sensor Board. The device was built and sold by the Playful Invention Company until about 2009, when it was discontinued. It has since been picked up by SparkFun. In other words, it’s a board that’s got some age on it.

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi B

The Raspberry Pi (RPi) is a full-fledged computer that will fit into an Altoid tin box. It has 512 MB of RAM, and ARM processor that handles Linux nicely, HDMI and composite video and audio outs, and two USB ports. Instead of a drive it reads and writes to an SD card. All of it is open sourced. Sweet. I got the B unit, which comes with an Ethernet port.

One of the great things about the RPi is that it can run several different operating systems. Most run Raspbian, which is a version of Debian Linux optimized for the RPi. However, it can run other distributions and can run a couple of different flavors of the XBox Media Center (XBMC). Since these boot off of an SD card, swapping to a new operating system is as simple as changing SD cards.


When these things first came out I had no idea how I might use one, but now I’ve got tons ideas. Most of these involve time lapse photography. More on that in a later post.

Each of these devices does something different and could be used for their own projects, but they also play very nicely together. Any of the programs that run on Linux will work with the MaKey MaKey. Raspberry Pi comes with Scratch installed, so it will work well with the PicoBoard. Right now I’ve got ideas of ways that I could create a type of Theremin, where the PicoBoard resistance sensors trigger the sound board on the Raspberry Pi, and instrument/timbre selections could be made with MaKey Makey connections.

So, lots to do an experiment with on these cold winter days. We’ll have to see see what I’m able to create.

UPDATE: I’ve been reading more online about these devices, and found a great video explaining the differences. The PicoBoard is based on an ATmega328 processor, which is the same processor used in many Arduino boards. Since the MaKey Makey is Arduino-based, this makes it more akin to the PicoBoard than the Raspberry. The following video does a great job of explaining the difference between Arduino and the RPi, and when you would want to use each.

Let’s consider one specific application of interest to me – Time Lapse Photography. If I were going to create a computer controlled dolly mechanism for panning a camera during a time-lapse session, I’d probably use an Arduino since it would primarily be controlling motors. If I were going to be controlling the camera directly, or collecting the images, I’d use the Raspberry Pi.

MaKey MaKey and Google Earth

Makey Makey and Google Earth-001

MaKey MaKey – Front Side

Before Christmas I got an Amazon gift card for my birthday, and I used it to buy a MaKey MaKey. It arrived just before the hectic Christmas rush and our traveling, so I didn’t really get a chance to play with it. These past few very cold days have been the perfect opportunity to see what this thing can do.

So, what is this thing?

A MaKey MaKey is an Arduino-based computer interface that allows any conductive material to be substituted for a key on the computer keyboard. The name is a contraction of “Make Anything a Key,” or “MaKey.”

The kit comes with alligator clips and jumper wires to attach to…just about anything. The board is connected to the computer via USB. You connect the clip to some conductive material such as aluminum foil, liquid, or even a piece of fruit. Another clip is attached to the ground on the board, the held in one hand. Touching the fruit-foil-liquid will complete the circuit through your body and trigger the key, depending on where the first clip is attached on the board. (more…)

Oh, Technology…


The Greenville News reported that Greenville County Schools has undergone its review by AdvancED for accreditation. Here’s one of the things they found…

The review team from the AdvancED Accreditation Commission conditioned its approval on a “required action” that the district improve its use of technology to provide equity for students in all schools and develop a better system-wide technology infrastructure…

The district’s lowest rating was in the use of technology by students, which was based on 20-minute observations in 191 classrooms…

Also related to technology, the team found a need for “development of a robust system-wide infrastructure, to make sure things keep working and not need to wait for somebody with the expertise to fix it.”

The team also heard complaints from teachers and school officials that the district is lacking a comprehensive data system that could help compile better information on individual student performance, Barker said.

“You have a wealth of information about students, you have a wealth of information about a lot of your operations in the district,” he said. “It’s not housed in one place — not physically, but in technology — where it can be easily combined, disaggregated and reports written.

“We urge you to consider the strength of a comprehensive data warehouse to provide current information, particularly to your teachers, about what Susie needs this week, not what she did on last year’s MAP (Measuring Academic Progress) test.”

Now isn’t that interesting. The Spartanburg Five review said pretty much the same thing, but didn’t have any problems with our infrastructure or use of data. It’s also the same thing they said to Spartanburg Two. It’s as if AdvancED has a script they are checking off.

While this gives me some slight vindication, I’m glad I’m out of that business. It’s been almost six months since I retired, and the Greenville News article brought it all flooding back. I still love teaching, I care about, and love working with students, and I still think technology, used appropriately, is a necessary tool for today’s teachers. However, being a director of technology was always a no-win situation.

I once said that as a tech director I got only three kinds of calls (or e-mails, or whatever.) These came from 1. someone wanting me to buy something for them, 2. someone wanting to sell me something, or 3. someone complaining about something not working. Nothing else. Ever. There were those that complained that our technology was not advancing fast enough, and those that said that it was moving too fast and that they couldn’t keep up. It was enough to drive one crazy.

So, just when I think I’ve recovered, I read an article like the one in today’s Greenville News, and it all comes flooding back. I think when that happens I’ll just have to dive back into my book project, or do more photography, or do more paddling. Those options are much, much better than what I had been doing previously. It will take time, but I will get over this. I already like life much better.

The Last EdTech



This week many of my former instructional technology colleagues gathered for the South Carolina Educational Technology Conference. This was the second year in a row that the conference was held in Greenville, and it’s being right here in my back yard presented a unique set of problems.

Last year before deciding to retire, I had submitted proposals for two talks at EdTech. I had submitted my usual Google Earth presentation, and the latest presentation I had been doing on creating music on iOS devices. With all of the hoopla surrounding my departure, I forgot about my submissions, until I saw a posting on Facebook. Since I didn’t have access to my district e-mail, I didn’t know if they had accepted my proposals. Google Earth wouldn’t be an issue, but if they selected the iPad presentation that was going to be a problem. I don’t have access to an iPad anymore.

Once the session schedule was posted this summer I logged on and saw that they had selected the Google Earth presentation, but not the iPad presentation. I would have preferred doing the latter under normal circumstances, but in this situation it was OK. I sent an e-mail saying that my e-mail had changed and that they needed to update their contact info. Then I waited.

Nothing. Didn’t hear back from them, and I didn’t know whether or not they were still expecting me to present. When the conference time came, I made preparations for my Google Earth talk. I’ve given this one so many times that I could just about do it in my sleep. In fact, I was hoping to phase the presentation out in favor of other talks, should I continue to do this. I toyed with the idea of just skipping out altogether, but I didn’t think that would be cool. I still have some pretty raw emotions about anything instructional technology related. However, I decided I could still be a professional, and I still had worthwhile knowledge to impart.

I started by updating my presentation, first removing any reference to the district. Some of my resource files were on my school Google account, and were on longer available, but it was easy enough to recreate them. Part of the problem, though, is that parts of Google Earth that used to work so well now seem broken. A key part of my presentation is describing how online media can be embedded into Google Earth placemarks. That just wasn’t working. I finally got enough of it working so that I could embed enough items (SoundCloud, AudioBoo, etc) to make the presentation worthwhile, but I couldn’t get any video to work.

The time for the conference arrived. For whatever reason I had it in my head that I was presenting on Wednesday. Turns out it was Thursday, necessitating my schedule alteration for the state fair. I decided I would only go for the morning of my presentation, but nothing more than that.

I showed up at the TD center and walked to the presenters’ registration booth. They were happy to see me, and were wondering if I was going to show up. I told them I had sent the e-mail, but no one apparently got it. They hadn’t printed a badge for me, so they were going to do one on the spot. They asked for my title, and I told them to leave it blank. They asked for my organization, and told them to leave that blank, too. I guess I could have made up something, but I just wasn’t feeling creative.

I first walked into the exhibit hall, and it was totally weird. I saw lots of friends and colleagues, and it was great saying hello to them. Many of these were vendors with whom I’ve done lots of business over the years. I told one of them that it was kind of refreshing just walking through to say hello without expecting any follow-up sales calls or any other obligations. Bryan Pigford from Camcor showed me a really cool new document camera, and I ran into another vendor with a Phantom Quadcopter with a GoPro. I lamented (somewhat) that I wasn’t going to be able to buy stuff like this now.


I was pleased to see that one of my former schools won the TIP Award for this past year. Abner Creek Academy had won, and several of the teachers and principal were on hand to receive the award. I also saw many more of my friends from around the state. I passed out lots of my cards with my updated contact info.

Time for my presentation eventually came. I was amazed at the size of the room I was in – it would easily seat a couple hundred. That many did not show up – closer to 60, which was still a good number. However, things did not start smoothly. First I couldn’t get the projector to talk to my Mac. Then I couldn’t get connected to the Internet, and there was no tech help to be found. At least, officially. With an audience of techies, I had plenty of suggestions.

Finally I got things going, and was able to get through most of my presentation before time ran out. The audience seemed seemed very receptive, and I got some good questions at the end. If this was to be my last EdTech presentation, I was glad I was going out on a high note.

I took one more spin through the exhibit hall. It was a little bittersweet. I don’t know if I’ll submit a proposal next year. In fact I kind of doubt it, especially if it’s back down at Myrtle Beach or someplace like that. Still, it was good to see everyone and give one last presentation.

A Bridge to Nowhere

Sparkleberry Swamp Altered

Sparkleberry Swamp

Somehow I found myself taking one last course for certification this summer. I’m taking one of the PBS Teacherline courses online. The course is on Dynamic Media and Digital Storytelling, a subject with which I’m already quite familiar. However, I just needed the course credit.

The course itself is been…so, so. There’s been more time spent on “Educationese” and gobbledy-goop catch phrases that I used to detest, than on actual digital storytelling.

Even so, I did manage to put together a decent (in my opinion) project. My digital story was entitled “A Bridge to Nowhere”, and it’s a summary of a previous blog post about the controversial Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector, a proposed bridge from Lone Star to Rimini across Lake Marion.

The 12 minute video summarizes the history of the Santee Cooper area, and briefly touches on the controversy. I used photographs I’d taken from several paddling trips to lakes Marion and Moultrie, coupled with GoPro video. I filled in with a few maps, newspaper clippings, and historic shots to complete the video. (more…)

Mayflower by the Numbers


Plymouth Colony

I had posted a link to this activity once before. This is from a presentation I gave at an EdTech conference nearly a decade ago. It’s probably too late for a teacher to use for this Thanksgiving, but I thought it was time to pull it out of mothballs once again…

The original Mayflower by the Numbers activity was hosted on one of our school servers. I’ve updated it with Google Docs and have moved to my own Workshops Google site.

Here’s the lesson as an embedded Google Doc…

…and here is the associated Google Spreadsheet…

UPDATE: One of my Facebook friends posted this image, and I though it would be appropriate here…


Back to School 2012


Aviary google-com Picture 1

And so it begins again. Students return on Monday. Our teachers were back last Monday. The summer is over and we’re getting back to the business of educating kids.

Not that summer has been a vacation for me. I’ve long ago left the cycle of having summers off. In fact, summer is typically my busiest time as we try to do upgrades on our systems. This summer was particularly busy because we tried to change/upgrade just about every technology system we have. It’s been a crazy time with late evenings, working on days that I would normally have off, and trying to conduct a three ring circus of vendors working on frantic deadlines to get everything ready before August 15.

Here’s a list of our projects this summer… (more…)

Going Google


We’ve done it.  This week I flipped the switch to transition our school district to Google Apps, with GMail as our primary e-mail system.

We had been a Novell/Groupwise shop every since I’ve been in the district.  Novell had been a reliable, rock-solid product.  However, their latest version was on a linux-based platform, and it was becoming increasing difficult to find network engineers to support our system.  Other districts in our county had already switched to Windows Networks with Exchange.  We began that process this summer, but with GMail.

This was neither a quick decision, nor a quick process.  We had actually been using Google Apps for the past couple of years under another domain owned by the district, so our folks were used to the system.  Even so, we put out a survey to our users, asking what features they would like to see in a new system.  We also test drove Microsoft’s Live@EDU system as a comparison.  Ultimately, we decided to go with Google, since to many of our users were already familiar with GMail.

We started sending out messages for our users to start getting ready for the change last spring.  In June I created all of the accounts for our users and started encouraging them to log onto the new system, giving July 9 as our cut over date.

Of course, change isn’t easy.  I’ve fielded TONS of calls and e-mails from users who were not able to get into their accounts for one reason or another.  Even so, a significant number of our teachers have yet to log into the new system.  I think that first week of school is going to be crazy.

For those that have made the switch, the response has been generally positive.  I’m trying to go beyond e-mail and promote the whole Google package, including Google Docs, Google Voice, and Google+.  We’ll see how that progresses.

If you build a dam here…


Lake Union 1

While kayaking on Parr Shoals Reservoir last Saturday, Alan and I started discussing lakes in general. Specifically we were talking about the placement of dams and the hydrology of water backing up to fill in the space. We laughed at one of the last scenes of “O Brother, Where Art Thou“, where the lake comes flooding in as a torrent, rather than rising gently as it should. As far as movies go, “Deliverance” was a more realistic view of how lakes are created.

As the conversation proceeded, I reminisced about the time I participated in the SC-MAPS project when I was a teacher. This was a three-day workshop where we learned how to use topographic maps and satellite imagery in the classroom. This was long before the days of Google Earth, so the ability to look at overhead images of where you live was still a novelty.

One of the activities they had us do was to draw a line across a river connecting contour lines at the same height. This line would represent a dam. Then we were to trace the contour line at that level all the way around, outlining the area that would be inundated by the new lake. It was a tedious process, but the results were fascinating. The lakes always turned out much larger than we expected.

As Alan and I talked, we wondered if there was some automated way to do this using Google Earth, so when I got home I started searching for a method. The automated systems I found were complex, requiring advanced knowledge of ArcGIS, hydrology, and GIS techniques in general. Even so, I think I’ve found a simple way in Google Earth. Here’s how… (more…)

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