Monday, November 23, 2015

My 2015 Chromebook Gift Guide

If you are thinking about picking up a Chromebook for yourself, a son or daughter, or your parents, or a college student, this is a great time to get a great deal! Chromebooks, by definition, are much less expensive than their Windows or Mac counterparts, but they have gotten even more affordable during the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Chromebooks, for the most part, are identical. They all run the same software and have access to the same web-based tools. But from a user perspective, the hardware DOES make a difference. You can get a Chromebook at Walmart for $134.00 and it will work well, but I don't think you will love it. Spend just a bit more and your Chromebook will become your favorite device.

Costco members can pick up a super nice Acer Chromebook featuring 4GB of RAM (a critical upgrade for those of you who love loading up a million tabs!) and a HUGE 15.6" screen (Great for loading ALL the spreadsheets!). Costco is making this Chromebook available on their website for $229.99.

But if you want to be the cool kid (or teacher, or mom, or dad), you should check out the awesome ASUS Chromebook Flip a unique Chromebook that converts into a touch screen tablet. All that for $249! I strongly encourage you to purchase the 4GB model for your tab-a-holic. The Chromebook flip features a aluminum casing similar to Apple's macbooks which results in a very durable device. My only caution with the Chromebook Flip is the small 10.1" screen. If you do a lot of spreadsheet work, this probably isn't the right device for you.

Three Chromebooks at bargain prices- one for everyone on your list!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: Chromecast Audio

My dated stereo system, now with a Chrome Cast Audio upgrade!


I've been a Chromecast user for a few years now and was super excited by Google's announcement of Chromecast Audio - a device similar to the original Chromecast that allows simple music sharing.

My family recently moved and our new home has built in home speakers on the main level that are connected to a nice, but dated, stereo system. While it had an audio input port, it was annoying to have to leave my phone on the counter anytime that I wanted to play music. Shortly after moving I researched replacing the stereo with a more modern system with WiFi / Bluetooth connectivity (i.e. Sonos), but was turned off by the high prices for replacing my otherwise sufficient system.

Chromecast audio seemed to be just what I needed; A simple, affordable device ($35) that bridges the gap between my low-tech sound system and my high-tech mobile devices.

I ordered a Chromecast Audio from the Google Store shortly after it was released. Currently you can only pick up this device from the Google Store, although it is reportedly coming to Walmart and Best Buy in the near future. Free shipping makes it easy enough to order directly from Google.

Neat Chromecast clam-shell packaging. 
First, I would like to say that Google has really upped it's packaging game. The clam-shell box that the Chromecast comes in is really cool! I guess Apple isn't the only company paying attention to packaging anymore!

Chromecast Audio is extremely small; slightly larger than a silver dollar. The size makes it super easy to tuck this little device out of the way; since it's powered by WiFi there are no line-of-site issues to consider. 

Chromecast audio next to a half-dollar
The device has two ports: a mini USB port on one end for power and a traditional 3.5mm audio jack (normal headphone size). Google generously provides an audio cable (very short 4"), power cable, and wall charger to power the device. This means that you'll have one less mini USB cable and wall charger to order from Amazon and makes the $35 price point an even better deal! If you're an audiophile, you can review the complete tech specs for the Chromecast here.

Setting up your Chromecast is easier than it was with the first generation. All you need is a mobile device (Android or iOS) and the free Chromecast App from Google. Launch the app and it will automatically discover the new Chromecast and walk you through the setup process to get it connected to your network. Once connected to your network, plug it in to your stereo system and you are ready to jam!

Chromecast supports a variety of streaming music services including Pandora, Spotify, Songza, Google Play Music and iHeart Radio. Launch a supported app and look for the "cast" icon to appear, allow you to send the audio signal to your device. Make sure you grab the free Google Cast extension for your Mac, PC, or Chromebook so that you can stream from your computer as well.

The bad news for iPhone users (like me) is that you won't be able to stream content from any of Apple's services (including iTunes or the Music app on your phone) to Chromecast. I wouldn't look for this to change...ever. The good news, is that you can automatically mirror your iTunes library to Google Play Music for free (unlimited storage). Download the Google Play music App on your iOS device, and you can play everything that is in your iTunes library - plus you have a secure backup of all of your music!

I'm guessing you have probably used some sort of streaming device (Bluetooth speaker, AppleTV, etc). Chromecast Audio is WAY better; and it's all in the technology. Once your mobile phone connects to your Chromecast and begins streaming, the Chromecast takes over, streaming content directly from the web into your speakers, cutting your phone out of the process. This significantly improves audio quality, eliminates buffering, physical line-of-site or proximity issues, preserves battery life on your phone, and allows you full use of the phones voice command and other features. It's AWESOME!

Another issue that you may experience in a home filled with mobile devices - what if a song comes on that you don't like but your wife's phone is streaming? Not much you can do except hunt down her phone and skip the song. With the newly designed Chromecast App, anyone can see what is currently playing, adjust the audio volume, and stop streaming. You can't currently change the song; hoping that feature is added soon!

I've only begun using Chromecast Audio, but I'm already sold. $35 is an absolute bargain for this device and it performs better than much more expensive and complex alternatives.

Every month I send out an email newsletter highlighting ideas, updates, and new Apps and Extensions for Chromebooks. If this sounds like something you would appreciate, you can sign up here!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Google Certifications for Educators

Google has been offering professional development and certifications for educators for quite a few years. It started with the Google Certification Academy and then expanded to include a certification program for Google Apps for Education. This week Google refreshed its flagship training programs and added two NEW certifications into the mix. Here's what you need to know:

Google Apps for Education Certification

The program to certify and authorize individuals as Google experts remains unchanged, although the name of the certification has change slight to become "Google for Education Certified Trainer." The certification badge has changed as well.

The certified trainer program is designed to identify experts capable of providing training and support for Google Apps for Education, Chromebook, and Android tablets. You can learn more about becoming a Google for Education Certified Trainer here.

The Certified Trainer program is very intense and requires a deep, technical knowledge of Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Sites, and Google hardware. Maintaining your certification status requires regular professional development activity (3 per quarter) and re-certification every 12 months. For educators in the classroom, achieving and maintaining this certification may prove to be challenging. As are result, Google launched 2 NEW certification program designed for classroom teachers

New Certifications

The big change is the addition of two NEW certification specifically designed for classroom teachers:
Unlike the technical training certification, the Certified Educator program focuses on classroom applications and integration for popular Google products like Google Drive, Search, and Maps. A robust training center guides teachers through a series of exercises and instructional information.

Teachers who which to quantify their knowledge can elect to take a final exam to become an official "Google Certified Educator." Exams must be purchased at a cost of $10 (Level 1) and $25 (level 2).

Complete details on the new Certified Educator program can be found here.

**Update 6/30/15**

I purchased and took the Certified Educator, Level 1 exam on June 30. The exam format is quite nice- a mix of multiple choice and drag-and-drop questions followed by a performance based portion that requires you to complete simple tasks such as setup a class in Google Classroom, create a form, share a YouTube playlist, etc. 

Unfortunately the exam content is a bit of a mess. I was repeatedly asked to reference provided resources that were not available and accomplish tasks that my account was not authorized to complete. Needless to say, I didn't pass. I took extensive notes and sent them off to my contacts within the Google EDU team. 

It appears that there are a few bugs to work out in the new Certified Educator exam. I have confidence that the Google EDU team will get things fixed up and this will be a great products for educators in the near future. 

I will post updates on this page as I receive them. 

**Update 7/1/15**

There are several growing threads that indicate that my experience with the new exam is not unique. 
Here is a Google+ thread and a Google support thread with stories to the same effect. 

I received an email from the Google EDU team acknowledging my concern. Later in the day the Certified Educator exams were removed from the Google Training site which now reads "coming soon."

Google Certified Teachers are now "Google for Education Certified Innovators."

Google has re-branded the Google Teacher Academy program into a new innovation focused event. Details on this program are sparse right now and are expected to be revealed this summer.

As someone who is a Google Certified Teacher (now "certified innovator"), Certified Trainer, and Certified Administrator, I can honestly say that these programs have significantly impacted my life. These three programs have connected me to people, ideas, and opportunities that I never would have had access to had I not gone through the program. I would highly encourage anyone to make the investment to become a certified educator, trainer, or administrator. Becoming certified takes time, energy, and a little bit of money (for exams). To help educators be successful through the certification process, I have developed the "Google Certification Academy" a 2-day program designed to help educators determine which certification is right for them and to help them work through the necessary steps to become certified. If you would like to learn more about the Certification Academy and bring this event to your school, you can check out my other website,

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why I Love the Chromebook

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I love Chromebooks. It's not because I'm a Google Certified Teacher / Trainer or because I don't like Microsoft, or [only] because they are cheap, or because they do something different than my Android, iPhone, iPad, Macbook, Windows computer.

I love the Chromebook because, in my opinion, it exemplifies everything that I love about technology and the potential for technology to impact education.

1. Simplicity

I have spent hour planning the perfect lesson; slide presentations, multimedia, practice problems and more. These are NOT the lesson that my students remember. My best lessons occur when I tell a story about my past or a real-life event or surprise them with a non-traditional style of instruction. For teachers, simple lessons can have the biggest impact. Tell a story. Let students explore. Let them teach each other.

Many teachers avoid technology because of the complexity of it all: Battery life, WiFi strength, bandwidth, storage capacity, logins, passwords, and more. Chromebooks are simple. Turn them on and you are ready to learn. Nothing to download, update, install, or save.

Technology should make us more productive and better able to communicate, create, and connect with others. If it doesn't, we should question whether we would be better off using a pencil and a sheet of paper.

2. Flexibility

Classrooms that are built around rules, procedures, and laws cause stress. Does my name have to be in the top right or left corner? Is it blue pen for first draft and black for second draft? The classroom that has clear boundaries in which students are encouraged to explore is the classroom I want to be in.

Chromebooks offer astounding flexibility as they mold and change with surprising ease. I love the fact that you can pull any Chromebook out of a cart, log in to your account and the device immediately becomes your own. The farther away we can move from technologies that are platform, OS, or device specific, the better.

Technology should create NEW learning opportunities, not limit what we can accomplish in the classroom.

3. Accessibility

Teacher access is a critical component to student engagement and learning. Have you ever been in a class that was so big you were just a face in the crowd? Have you ever had a teacher that was unapproachable or who had limited availability? Research indicates that the connection between the teacher and student is critical if learning is going to occur.

Just like every student should be able to connect personally with their teacher, students should be able to connect personally with technology; they must have access. Technology that is only accessible at school, or in a specific class, or on a specific device makes learning difficult. Chromebooks are inexpensive and run on the web which means are affordable and accessible.

We also have the responsibility to keep our student safe from harm and preserve their innocence. Chromebooks can do just that with safety and security capabilities that are best in class. When coupled with other innovative tools, we can even prevent cyber bulling and self harm.

Technology should also be available to all learners, not just traditional learners. There are many stories that highlight how Chromebooks are opening up new opportunities for students with diverse learning needs.

Technology should increase student access and opportunities regardless of the economic status or learning style, and technology should be used to keep our students safe and accountable.

4. Iterative Innovation

Can you imagine what would happen if administrators refused to let teachers modify their lesson plans or syllabus after the start of the school year? Teaching is an iterative process. Try something, revise, and repeat! Teachers don't wait until next school year to modify their teaching style or lesson plans, they update as often and as quickly as necessary.

The design of traditional software and devices makes them difficult to update. Find the perfect iOS app mid-year? Good luck trying to push it out to your entire fleet of iPads for class tomorrow!

Google pushes out a new version of ChromeOS every six weeks. Apps, Extensions, bookmarks, and more can be pushed out to ChromeOS devices instantly. Teachers can use Google Classroom or Google Play for education to send content directly to student devices without bugging the IT department for help.

Technology acts like a magnifying glass - it makes a good teacher even better and opens up additional learning pathways.

I want my classroom to be Simple, Flexible, Accessible and Innovative. That's the kind of classroom I would want my kids in as well. Perhaps that class would also use Chromebooks.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Understanding Google Vault for Education

As of January 2015, Google Vault (formerly Postini) was made available to all Google Apps for Education customers. Formerly a paid service, Vault is now FREE for Educational institutions.

Google Vault is a e-discovery and archiving tool designed to help you retain district data. For public institutions, state and federal regulations require the retention of information for set period of time that varies by state. Vault will make you compliant with these regulations. Vault currently fully supports Gmail and Hangouts with partial support of Google Drive data.

During the 2015 Indiana Google Education summit I led a breakout session focused on the appropriate setup of Vault as well as using Google Vault to comply with Freedom of Information requests (FOIA), internal investigations (i.e. cyber bulling) or recovery of lost data.

The presentation below was captured using a Swivl camera. It's a long session, but you can skip to the parts that pertain to you by selecting any of the slides- the video will automatically jump to that point in the recording.

I have also embedded the original slide deck as well.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Google Classroom Tips, Tricks, and Hacks

Google Classroom Tips Tricks and Workaround | John R. Sowash |
Since its release at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, Google Classroom has demonstrated tremendous potential to help teachers and students communicate, collaborate, and create together. Classroom has significantly simplified the document creation, sharing, and feedback cycle present in most classrooms.

While Google Classroom is a great tool, there are a few areas that need refinement: multiple teacher access, group projects, peer editing, differentiated projects, content organization and searching, parent access, and more.

Flip through the presentation below to consider how you can resolve the issues above while continuing to use Google Classroom. As new features are announced and options are added I will update the presentation with new workaround solutions.

If you have developed your own workaround for these, or any other issues, please leave a comment and share your solution!

New to Google Classroom? Check out my post on setting up Google Classroom or 5 Google Classroom mistakes to avoid!

Monday, January 26, 2015

#FETC 2015 Recap

I had the opportunity to attend the Future of Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando Florida this past week. FETC is one of the largest EdTech conferences in the country with over 10,000 attendees from around the world.

FETC is a HUGE conference with lots of big names and big ideas. Here are my top take-aways from the 2015 conference:

1. The maker movement is growing
I can't tell you how many sessions there were  on 3D Printing, makerspaces, tinkering, hacking, etc. The 2015 Keynotes included the COO of Makerbot, designers of one of the top 3D printers in schools today.
The vendor hall was filled with products and companies supporting and connected with the maker movement.

2. The future of technology links the digital and the physical
I sat in a great session from Brad Waid and Drew Minock (Two  Guys and Some iPads) that showcased the latest in Augmented Reality (AR). The blending of the digital and physical world is very cool and powerful for classrooms, especially those like science that study the physical world. 3D printing, programming physical objects and makerspaces connect our devices and everyday physical objects.

Unlike consumer shows like CES, there wasn't a whole lot of buzz about wearables in the classroom (just one session on Google Glass - may it rest in peace). Google Glass, smart watches, etc aren't being touted as the next educational frontier. Teachers and students don't need more devices to connect and configure, but they are interested in linking the physical classroom (papers, books, objects, lab-ware, etc) to the devices they do have.

3. Cool Product of the Show - Swivl
I walked through the entire vendor hall at FETC and two products captured my attention:

Swivl - Think Roomba for your iOS device! Swivl is a rotating "robot" that follows you while capturing video and audio. Swivl can also sync your slide presentation with video. The final product is a picture-in-picture video with your slides and you! Swivl has great application for the flipped classroom and for anyone who creates a lot of training videos and podcasts.

Air Squirrels Mirroring - First, you have to love the name! Who wouldn't want with a company called "Air Squirrels?" Air Squirrels is the creator of the reflector app that mirrors your iPad to your computer. They also just launched "Air Parrot" which can mirror your Chromebook to your Apple TV (no audio support yet), Chromecast, or Reflector App. This is a great product for anyone needing to creating training videos and instructional guides on the use of Chromebooks.

4. Educators Can Influence Companies
I had an opportunity to talk with members of several large tech companies about their involvement in education and how certain practices and strategies might NOT be wise for them to continue. I was grateful at the willingness of these companies to hear "our" recommendations and their sensitivity to our needs.

Educators should partner and connect with tech companies to help shape their products, services, and marketing strategies. We need them; they need us.

5. Gaming in the classroom
The "gameification" of the classroom is still a widely discussed topic, but classroom gaming still hasn't founds its place. Gaming still feels like an "add-on" to existing classroom practices rather than something deeply integrated into the curriculum and instructional strategies.

I'm not sure I see a future where "school is a game" ever coming to pass. Rather, I see some of the core elements of gaming (problem/task based challenges, "multi-player" learning, badges, and "leveling") making their way into existing practice. This idea was buried in the short concluding keynote of Lucien Vattel, CEO of GameDesk.

As we move into conference season, I would love to hear the trends that you observe as you attend conference near you. Do you agree with these trends? Are there additional trends that you see gaining momentum?