To Connect or not to connect….

…that is the question. Perhaps it should be more a question of how to connect? Teachers at my school use their iPads every day in the classroom, and connect them to projectors using a variety of different ways. While I know this is a bit more technical than pedagogical, I thought it might be useful to run through some of the advantages/disadvantages of each method. As I hope you’ll also see Airplay is a potentially very powerful tool in the classroom.

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1. VGA connector. By far the simplest way to plug your iPad into a VGA projector for example. Lots of projectors in school don’t have an HDMI input, and we cannot simply get rid of projectors that work perfectly well but are missing this newer connection standard. One of the downsides of the 30 pin dock connector in particular is that it can fall out easily, something which often then upsets my iPad and usually leaves me quitting and restarting apps as I fill during a presentation. The new lightning VGA connector seems much better at not falling out though….

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2. HDMI adaptor – Very similar to the VGA connector above, this connects directly to the iPad and allows you to connect via HDMI cable to a suitable projector or display screen. One of the advantages over the VGA connector is that HDMI can carry audio as well as video, which removes the need for a separate audio cable being plugged into the iPad’s headphone socket.

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The HDMI adaptor also allows connection of a standard dock connector cable to allow charging whilst connected (and new lightning versions of the HDMI and VGA adaptors also include this feature).

The main problem with the connectors above is that the cables essentially tether a great mobile device to a point near the VGA cable, and as mentioned the cable has a tendency to come detached at inopportune moments (I actually use a very low tech elastic band to hold the connector in place when I have to resort to presenting from an iPad in this way).

Airplay technology allows you to mirror the iPad display through an Apple TV or airplay software, freeing you up from having to use cables in your classroom at all. Older projectors without an HDMI slot can prove to be a bit of a challenge, although the next gadget may help solve this challenge.

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3. HDMI to VGA adaptor – There are a variety of boxes which will convert an HDMI signal into a VGA one, sometimes with varying degrees of success. The ATV Pro by Kanex (more info) has given us the best results with a variety of different projectors, giving a good picture without any obvious distortion of image (many convertors we have tested seem to squash the image in the horizontal plane). This simple box features an HDMI connector on one end and a VGA female socket and audio socket on the other end. At around £40 this is a cheaper alternative than replacing the projector, and will give the full Apple TV experience in the classroom.

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4. Apple TV – I’m sure most people are aware of this little black box and how it works to allow you to mirror your iPad (or Apple computer display in Mountain Lion) to an HDMI input such as projector or TV.

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5. Airplay software such as Reflector. This software turns your computer into an airplay receiver, just like an Apple TV. Now available for both Mac and PC, single licenses cost around £10, and discounted volume licensing is also available. You can read more about it here, and you might also be interested in looking at air server (read more here), another piece of software for Mac/PC which allows you to airplay to your computer.
Reflector allows you to airplay multiple iPads (4) to a single computer, which can bring an interesting new dynamic to presentations and other classroom workflows. Combined too with screen recording in an application like QuickTime Player, it is also possible with Reflector to do professional looking iPad screencasts.

Interestingly, many of our teachers use a variety of the above, dependent on the room they are in, the activity the class are undertaking and/or the way in which the iPads are being used.

One challenge on school networks can be that bonjour is often disabled by security conscious network managers who don’t want user devices to be able to “see” each other. School networks may also be set up behind some kind of proxy server, or devices be separated onto different subnetworks. All of these reasons can make seeing the Airplay device difficult or impossible, however, they are all pretty much surmountable. Correct security settings on your network make bonjour safe, and enterprise grade wireless networks are increasingly incorporating tools like bonjour gateway and bonjour directory allowing devices on different parts of the school network to communicate using airplay technology. Support for proxies is also built in to the Apple TV itself. I’ll share more about this and some other thoughts about wireless in schools in a future post, as with the increasing number of wireless devices coming into our schools, this is fast becoming the most important piece of our school network.

Anyway, back to airplay…..

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One other consideration can be “airplay abuse”. Apple TV by default allows any airplay device on the same network to connect, so students can connect to an Apple TV and projector just as easily as the teacher. In the first instance, most of our teachers start with their Apple TV in the default open airplay set up where no password is required to access the device via airplay. We have shown all of the teachers how the security pass code setting can be applied and this can be used to take more control of who can connect to the Apple TV if required. Recent updates to the Apple TV have added the ability to create an adhoc session pass code, ideal for use in a lesson/ classroom situation. Reflector could be set up using the create network feature on a Mac to create a “private” network just for the teacher if you needed it (I have used this on several occasions at conferences where I wanted to make sure I had control of the screen). I’m sure the same thing is also possible on a Windows PC too.

We currently have around 30 learning spaces with Apple TV set up and are gradually adding more as we update projectors around school. In the meantime, teachers all have Reflector installed on their MacBooks. We do also have a number of dock VGA connectors too (less than 10).

If you are currently purchasing new projectors at school make sure they have at least 1 HDMI connection to be able to hook up an Apple TV, and I also know of a number of schools replacing projectors with large LCD displays, as these become much more affordable in large sizes. Perhaps several smaller screens would provide a more effective collaborative learning environment, allowing groups of students to spread around the classroom sharing ideas with their group on a shared display screen through airplay?

One thing is for sure, devices capable of airplay change the dynamics of the classroom, and make it much easier for all classroom participants to quickly share content in the moment, which also enhances the classroom flow too.

If you haven’t already looked at airplay for your classroom, why not experience what life can be like without wires? Even without an Apple TV, software such as Reflector gives you the power to airplay through your laptop connected to your classroom projector.

More iPad gadgets for science

I probably have more than my fair share of gadgets and peripherals for the iPad and iPhone, but two that have been particularly useful in the science classroom are the focus of this post.

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The first is called Airmicro and is a wireless microscope. This gadget (which has been likened to an otoscope (for looking into ears)by friends, and an electric drill by airport security) creates it own wireless network using 3 AA batteries. Using one of several iOS apps, you can then connect your iPad to the wireless network it creates. The objective lens can be changed and a variety of lenses from 15x to 400x magnifications are available.

While not cheap (around £400, lenses vary from round £50 to £200), there are a couple of things that make this a really useful tool in the classroom. Traditionally, decent quality video microscopes are expensive enough that a school is not likely to have more than one of them. Inevitably, lessons involving video microscope work end up actively involving a minority of the class.

With the Airmicro, students can also connect to microscope using the app and capture their own pictures. The Mytech app (download here – free) also allows student to overlay a scale to take measurements much like using an eyepiece graticule with a conventional microscope. This means students can actively participate in lessons, even if there is only one Airmicro. This also makes it much easier to share the images captured under the microscope too.

We have used this very successfully in the classroom and although not designed to work with traditional microscope slides, we have had a good deal of success using the Airmicro attached to a clamp and stand and placing a sheet of white paper behind the slide.

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I bought my Airmicro from the Japanese manufacturer (Scalar – click here for more info), but there are also UK and US distributors now I think.

The second gadget I want to highlight is the Withings Blood Pressure monitor. Available from the Apple Store online and other resellers, this connects directly to the iPad using the dock connector (not currently lightning connector though). It does exactly what the name suggests and is a blood pressure cuff which is controlled by a free app on the iPad (you can download the app here).

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Again, in the classroom, I don’t think there is any need to have a lot of these, but when studying a unit on the heart and circulation for example, a really nice starter to each lesson of the unit could be to pass the blood pressure monitor around the classroom and have the students measure their blood pressure. Over the course of the unit, the students would build up a graph of their own blood pressure at different times of the day/week, and could be asked to investigate reasons for differences, for example. At around £100 this is not the cheapest science add on for the iPad but like the Airmicro could be another useful tool to maximise your investment in iOS devices.

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Another great find from the ever brilliant Julian Coultas, this little white box is another device designed to make sharing work from iPads across a network super easy…..

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Julian demoed this at BETT, and I ordered one as soon as I got home. I don’t see it replacing any of the other methods teachers at school have for sharing files, such as Dropbox and Showbie, to name but two. As a quick and easy way for getting files on and off a set of iPads though, this could be perfect!

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As Julian demonstrated at BETT, the meDrive can be powered using an iPhone charger, plug an ethernet cable in and a USB drive and you are all set. You can either access the device through a free app or through your web browser. Looking forward to playing with mine when it arrives…..

This could also be a great solution in such as a primary school where setting up a server with webdav is not a viable option – plug this into a central point in the school network and teachers could unplug and plug their USB drives, as needed, to share or collect work from the school owned shared iPads, after a class project for example.

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You can read more about Julian’s experiences with his meDrive here.

Back from BETT 2013

So, I’m just back from another great week presenting at the BETT show. This is the thrid year I’ve been lucky enough to be asked by Toucan and AT Computers to present workshops for teachers at the BETT show, and I think this year was probably the best yet!

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It was an absolute pleasure to spend a week with two good friends and fellow Apple Distinguished Educators, Joe Moretti and Julian Coultas and throughout the week we presented workshops on a whole variety of iPad related classroom workflows. There were many highlights during the week and I’ll no doubt be blogging about them over the coming days. To give you a little flavour of the week, I’ll mention just a few of the apps and tools we looked at; Showbie, Garageband, Nearpod, Labdisc and Globisens, Book Creator, Explain Everything, printopia, me-drive by Kanex, iBooks Author and iTunes U. The focus was very much on pedagogical approaches and classroom workflows that deeply integrate learning and technology – I hope we managed to deliver on our promises!

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One of my new resolutions following BETT is to make a concerted effort to actually maintain my blog/site, as this week has reminded me of the importance as an educator to share. Hopefully at least some of the ramblings which I am sure will follow will prove useful to some of those who find themselves here……

Back to my science roots – data logging on the iPad

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently with my iPad and some other toys exploring how the iPad can be successfully integrated into the science classroom.

There are a growing range of peripherals for the iPad (I’m sure I read somewhere that the iOS peripherals market is worth more than the iOS market itself) and there are some that are particularly enticing for the science classroom.

Datalogging is an area of technology that traditionally science has always made use of. Back in the days of BBC computers, black boxes called LogIT’s allowed collection and graphing of a whole variety of experimental data and most schools have a range of equipment for data collection from simple digital thermometers to whole ranges of specialist datalogging equipment.

In my eyes, one of the big problems with many datalogging solutions is that they usually consist of a base unit which you plug sensors (available separately) into to record different types of data. This means costs can soon mount up.

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The labdisc by Globisens takes a different approach. All of the sensors are built in to the data logging unit itself. There are 5 different models of labdisc all of which have 12 to 14 sensors built in. The different models cover a range of specialist areas such as biochemistry and higher level physics, while more general needs are taken care of by other models.

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See Labdisc in action in this video “A Walk in the Park”.

Originally designed for use with Mac or PC computers, Globisens have put much thought into developing an iPad app and bluetooth connectivity. The well thought out app is called Globilab and is available for free from the App Store.

Get the app here

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I’ve had the pleasure of using these extensively, and they work really well with the iPad. The user interface of the app is well thought out, allowing programming of the various sensors using on/off switches and rate and number of samples can also be set within the app (with some sensors it is possible to capture up to 25,000 readings per second). There is a nice feature to manually capture samples by pressing one of the buttons on the front of the Labdisc. Data can be exported as a csv file should you need to further analyse data, and the app itself is capable of both linear and quadratic regression curves.

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Another nice feature of the Labdisc is built in GPS making it perfect for recording data on field trips for example. The app displays data graphically on the map too.

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Even if you don’t yet have a Labdisc you can download the free app, and use the built in accelerometers and microphone in your iPad. Measure and record noise levels in the classroom throughout the course of a day, or combine your iPad with a Grip Case (more about these great cases in a future post) and a length of rope to do great pendulum experiments, or with a spring to investigate Hooke’s law.

At around $500 the Labdisc is not the cheapest tool you will ever buy for use with your iPad but with practical uses in Science and Geography from primary right through secondary, these valuable peripherals really help to maximise investment in mobile devices such as iPads.

We have recently invested in a set of 20 and I look forward to seeing how they are used across the science and geography curriculums and on various field trips over the coming months….I’ll keep you posted.