Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why I'm not an Apple Fan (but it's okay that you are) PT 1

This will be part 1 in a series.

By splitting this into multiple posts, I hope to encourage dialogue. If you've got a counter argument against something I've written, please feel free to share it in the comments. I welcome discourse, and the opinions presented herein are solely my own.

I have a confession:

I have a deep, dark secret to confess: I'm not an Apple person. I've worked with many different platforms (PC, Apple, Linux and Android), and I've found a way that works for me. Way back when, I started with an Apple II E. Then a Macintosh Classic. I now have two computers running Windows 7, a netbook running Chromium OS, a few routers running Linux, an Android smart phone and an Android tablet. I have them all set up the way I like, and everything works well for me.

Now that I'm teaching in a 1:1 program using MacBooks, I'm getting used to using OS X once again. I've had plenty of experience using Apple products (my first computer was an Apple II E way back when), and I've burnt through more than a couple MacBooks in my day. I'm perfectly comfortable using the Apple platform - it's just not my personal preference when making purchasing decisions.

A disclaimer before I rant...

There are plenty of people out there who love Apple products. I get it. They're renowned for their software design and for their incredible marketing. I hear it all the time from colleagues and friends: "Apple stuff just works." Yes, it does. They've got a polished product that plays nicely with other Apple stuff. I've even got an Airport Express that I use to stream music to my stereo. Their innovation and implementation really can't be beat from a usability standpoint.

I've heard all that before, and you'll get no argument from me.

On a personal level, there are several reasons for why I prefer other platforms when making personal purchasing decisions. I'll explain a few here:

Apple is a closed ecosystem.


Apple products work very nicely with other Apple products. Chances are, if you're running an all-Apple household, things work very well. However, getting Apple to work well with non-Apple can be tricky, and in many cases, I believe that people will likely prefer to just stick with Apple. I have many frustrating stories of my experiences trying to get Apple stuff to work well with my other devices. Backing up to non-Apple hard disks, connecting Apple wireless clients to non-Apple networks, managing Apple hardware from non-Apple hardware... The list goes on and on. It's just plain unpleasant to try to integrate a "cross-pollinated" household. In my own experience and my own opinion, Apple appears to prefer that their users stick exclusively with Apple products, and I understand the motivation. They want to ensure their customers have a good experience with the product.

I've experienced "engineered obsolescence"

I have an older Airport Express. For those unfamiliar with the product, it is used as a wireless access point, but can also serve as a connection for wireless printing and streaming music through AirPLay. A great concept, and I absolutely love what it can do. However, it is old. I bought it in 2004, it runs 802.11b/g, and it's been used quite a lot. I no longer use it as an access point - its sole function is to stream audio. Apple has, with its recent updates to the Airport Admin Utility, disabled administration of this device. I'm not sure what the justification is, but having an old piece of equipment appears to be enough of a problem for Apple to actively remove the utility that allows it to function. I have no argument against this! I get that companies must eventually discontinue support for old devices. However, cutting off the ability to manage a device that's old just strikes me as engineered obsolescence - the purposeful rendering of a piece of hardware as obsolete based on its age. There is no link on their website to obtain the utility to manage an old device. I've still been able to use it, but not without carefully applying a workaround.

It's all "locked down"


Anything you want your Apple to do with other Apple stuff, there's a good chance it'll do it. Little configuration, easy to implement, and everything's up and running. But if you want to get your Apple stuff working with non-Apple products, chances are you'll have to jump through a few hoops to get it to do what you want. That's not unheard of - getting things to talk to one another when they're from different manufacturers can be challenging no matter what platform you're using. However, I've found that Apple stuff tends to be even more finicky than all my other tech products.

And then there's the matter of my personal alignment with the open-source philosophy. Apple is, to me, the antithesis of open-source. They keep a very tight leash on what's allowed. This means that the quality control is high, but at the sacrifice of freedom to innovate. It can be difficult to develop products for Apple if you're not licensed (and it's expensive to get licensed). This effectively reduces the number of people actively developing new ideas on the Apple platform, and to me, that's an outdated business model.

To conclude part 1, I offer this nugget of wisdom: if you're looking for something that will work as advertised, and you're not too concerned about going beyond what the manufacturer has envisioned, then by all means, go with an Apple product (if that's your choice). I promise I won't hold it against you.

However, if you're like me, and you want to explore the potential of what your hardware could do, rather than just what is can do, then you might want to consider an alternative.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Update: embedded blogs

I recently posted instructions on how to embed a blog into your weebly site. I wasn't satisfied with the solution, because it only displayed each post's title, and my students had to click on the link in order to see the post content.

Not a big deal for most people, but I knew I could do better. So a little searching and some experimentation later, I've now managed to embed the blog post content seamlessly. It follows the same CSS formatting, so it blends in seamlessly. My students will likely have no idea they're looking at a blog - it looks exactly like any other weebly page.

The benefit for me is that I can schedule posts ahead of time, and I don't have to publish the site every time I update the problem of the day. That's a big time saver for me, because I do this every day with my students. With this solution, I can set everything up ahead of time during a prep, and let the magic happen all on its own.


The tool I used is called feedroll. It is a simple web page that will generate html code to embed your blog's feed into your weebly site. It is a simple script that generates html code. You copy the code then paste it into an embed object on your weebly site. I have tested it with my students and it seems to work well. I have also checked the compatibility with mobile devices by looking up my site with my android phone, and it all works quite well. Overall, I'm very satisfied with this solution.

Here is a step-by-step guide:

First, you'll have to enter the URL of your blog into the FeedRoll tool, then click on "Look At Your Feed." You may need to tweak the settings or use a feedburner feed (instructions are available here). You should be able to see the content from your blog in the preview window.

 Now you can play with the settings. I set mine up to show the title, 1 full item, and to include all HTML from the item display (which will allow embedded Google Forms to display properly). Configure the settings (don't worry if it's a bit confusing - just copy what I've done here), then click on "Generate JavaScript" button.

 You'll now be presented with a block of code. Highlight the whole thing, and copy it, then paste it into an embed object in your weebly page.

 Now to take it even further!

I use an embedded Google Form in each blog post to collect responses. There are a couple of scripts that I use to help configure everything ahead of time so that I only have to set things up once, then allow the scripts to do all the hard work.

To install a script, create a form, and choose a destination spreadsheet. In the sheet, click on the Tools-Script gallery... option.
 There are two scripts I use. formLimiter is a tool that allows me to configure when to close the form to responses. Students have until 8 pm to answer the Daily Math Problem. In the script gallery, search for formlimiter, and click on the install button.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feed homework to your students

Image: WikiMedia Commons
Like many teachers I use weebly to create my class website. It has a simple layout, but there is quite a lot you can do with them. I love the flexibility of having different layout themes, and I am continually learning.

One of my goals this year is to integrate Twitter into my class routines. I love the power and speed of using Twitter to find and share resources with fellow tech enthusiasts, makers and teachers. Hashtags are a great way to manage the volume of information I get from the people I follow.

I wanted to get my students thinking about social media when think about learning. Connecting and networking are skills they need to be effective digital citizens. Extending learning outside the classroom is one of my career goals as a teacher. But I want to have control over how and what they are exposed to. Especially since they are not yet old enough to have their own Twitter accounts (although I'm certain that hasn't stopped some of them).

Embedding a Twitter widget into my website seems like a good way to get them thinking socially. Especially since I can restrict the content that appears there. I had originally tried embedding my timeline into my website, but the volume of tweets that come in to and go out from my account means that the few tweets my students might be interested in would quickly be overwhelmed by the other tweets. I also have two different English groups and I don't want my students getting confused about which homework tweet applies to them.

After a quick internet search, I was able to find out how to configure a Twitter widget to show only my tweets that have a specific hashtag. I picked the course number for each course that I teach, and I will use that hashtag to address the tweet to that specific group. Each widget search field looks like this: from:@jpetersen02 AND #mat106. One widget per group gets embedded into that group's page on my weebly site, and I now have an easy way to post homework updates to my groups.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Embedding a form in a blog in a weebly site

This year I am lucky enough to have a 1:1 group for both English and Mathematics. I have grandiose ideas about what I want them to accomplish this year (blogging, real-time collaboration, and so on) and concrete objectives (considering audience, working as a team).

One of the things I want them to do is to complete a math Problem of the Day each math class. This has a few purposes:

  • Classroom Management: students will follow the same procedure every day at the beginning of class. They come into the room, pull up the POTD and complete it. There is a clear understanding of how they should be using their time.
  • Formative Assessment: their results will give me information about their understanding of the concepts covered. I will adjust my teaching strategies and give them feedback on a regular basis according to this measure of comprehension.
  • Exposure to New Ideas: I have found that most math problems students work on in school do not reflect the reality of mathematics in everyday life. Problems in text books are often small, neat, and "cleaned up" to have nice solutions. Real-world mathematics often does not reflect this. I intend to slowly introduce more challenging questions that are based on real-world scenarios.
There are three tools I am using for this: Google Drive, Blogger, and Weebly. I haven't yet migrated to Google Sites, but I imagine that in the future this will ease the integration process. I will post an update when I have tried it out.


Clearly I like Blogger (it's where this blog is hosted). I'm fluent in how the site works, and it's tied to my Google Apps for Education account, so I only need to click on the App in my Chrome Browser, and it opens everything up nicely.

This is where I begin the process. I write a short post with the necessary supporting information that the problem will require. I also often include a small visual (generally from WikiMedia Commons) to aid understanding.