Saturday, November 29, 2008

tt4t_065 Stupid parlor tricks and looking forward to next year

It’s Saturday, November 29th, 2008 and welcome to episode 65 of TechTalk4Teachers, I’m Tom Grissom. I had the chance to take the week off this week for Thanksgiving break and the time sure has flown by. I had to catch-up on several household chores including getting the home place ready for winter. As the years go by there is a routine that we establish with the coming and going of the seasons. Now that the fields are harvested and the trees have lost their leaves, we are settling in for the long winter ahead here in Illinois.

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Technology also ebbs and flows with a similar technological development cycle that we become accustomed to over the years. Soon it will be January and we will be looking forward to the Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld where vendors unveil their latest wares for the coming year. There is always something new on the horizon and this can be frustrating for users who want to buy the latest technologies now but know full well that in six months to a year there will be new and improved models with more features and often costing less money. Such is the price of progress.

Over Thanksgiving break I have had the opportunity to do more research on up-and-coming technologies and find myself in a similarly frustrating position, the next improved model is just out of my reach. I know it is coming but it is not yet here and budget cycles now require purchases.

The past year has witnessed the netbook craze and there seems no slacking off in the coming year. New touch-screen models are rumored on the near horizon and new features in Microsoft’s new Windows 7 operating system are teasing users with increased reliability, functionality, and speed including multi-touch capability that I believe will have great uses in education. All of this innovation with PC prices continuing to drop.

HP came out with the tx2 notebook this month and it is advertised as the first consumer notebook with multi-touch capability. While technically not a netbook the tx2 has a swivel mount that is similar to other HP Tablet PC models but now you can use your fingers instead of a stylus to control applications on the tx2 screen using the multi-touch capability.

HP has also had the Touch Smart, an all-in-one touch-screen model, out for some time now and ASUS, the makers of the popular eee PC netbooks, have recently announced a new line of all-in-one low-cost computers that they are calling the eee top. The exciting thing for educators is that the new netbook and eee top models are approximately half the costs of the more traditional notebooks and all-in-one computer offerings from other manufacturers. There is a huge battle going on between these low-cost devices and the more traditional and more powerful laptop categories. The jury is still out as to if the netbooks will continue to be the hot sellers that they currently are next year.

I have provided links to the HP Touch Smart, the HP tx2 notebook, and the new eee top models in the show notes if you are interested in learning more about these particular models.

HP Touch Smart all-in-one Computer

HP tx2 Notebook Computer with Multi-touch

ASUS eee top all-in-one multi-touch computer

In these tight economic times schools need to consider their purchases carefully and give consideration to lower cost alternatives that may not have the horsepower of the traditional full-fledged computers but that can still fulfill educational requirements and do so more economically. When you can buy two to three netbooks for the price of a single traditional laptop, then the bean counters start paying attention.

Of course it depends upon the ultimate purpose you are wanting to use the laptop for but for the majority of classroom activities the netbooks are more than adequate for routine classroom tasks. The biggest complaint is the small size keyboard of netbooks but for children this may actually be an advantage. For adults that need to use a larger keyboard you can simply plug-in a full-sized USB keyboard when you need to type for extended periods of time. Because many netbooks use the energy saving Intel Atom series of processors heavy users of video and photo editing applications will be disappointed in performance of current netbooks but for those that need a general purpose computer the low-cost netbook category may continue to be a big hit with educators.

Technology Pick of the Week

Since this was holiday break here in the States my Technology Pick of the Week this week is on the fun-side of things. I will classify this pick as in the category of “Stupid Parlor Tricks” At the IETC conference last week Hall Davidson gave a demo of Photo Booth and used a green card to create a chroma key image and then used a green card to “peer inside the human brain” using a webcam when he held the green card up to his head. Of course all that was needed was a background image of the human brain that could be keyed upon using the green card to create the see inside the head effect.

Many Cam - Webcam Special Effects Program

Chroma keying has been around for years and it can create some interesting effects if you use your imagination and creativity. I downloaded and installed a free application called Many Cam on an eee PC netbook running Windows XP this week while I was off from work. Many Cam is one of those fun little applications that is good for a lot of novelty effects and can leave many wondering, “How did he do that?” It can be used with chroma keying to place yourself on screen in whatever setting you select as your background image. So if you are longing for the Florida beaches no problem, just find the appropriate themed background image and you can place yourself on a sunny beach.

The advantage of Many Cam is that you can also use it with other webcam programs like Skype and some instant messaging applications that support video. Did I mention it is free! Of course the challenge becomes to use this novel webcam application for an educational purpose beyond amusement. Educators need to get beyond the toy mentality approach and focus on using the technological tools with a clear purpose and intent to improve learning.

A couple of years ago or so Logitech came out with similar software that supported avatars that you could use with their webcams. Logitech had a shark, an alien, and a princess among other avatars. When I first saw the Logitech software I thought it would be a great application to do some remote video conferencing with schools. Schools can have guest readers that can use an avatar to disguise their real identity and select an avatar to represent a character in a story that is read to the class from the characters perspective virtually. For example the Princess avatar could read Snow White with the Princess avatars image projected on a large screen in the front of the room.

Logitech Video Effects and Avatars,en?

This activity would have to be planned with the teacher but I do believe that the technology is now affordable enough and sophisticated enough that some schools could start hosting period and character authentic avatars that students could interact with and ask questions of as if they were time traveling back or forward in time to the location of the story or event.

Of course you need to pick age appropriate avatars and use educationally sound practices when creating such lessons. Using a Shark avatar with little children could be a bit frightening for the children and an inappropriate use of this technology. The beauty of using an avatar in this manner is that there is a real person on the other side of the camera that can take and answer questions from the perspective of that character.

There still remain some technical hurdles to overcome. I still run into firewall issues and bandwidth problems with schools that are using video streaming technologies but it is getting better and there are fewer barriers than there were just a few years ago. How about you? If you are using webcams in the classroom for educational purpose I would love to hear from you and have you share your experiences with the TechTalk4Teachers audience.

That wraps it up for episode 65 of TechTalk4Teachers. Show notes for this episode and archived episodes are available on the web at the EIU Instructional Technology website at just click on the TechTalk4Teachers podcast link. If you have a comment or suggestion please send an email to of leave a comment on the TechTalk4Teachers blog. Until next time, this is Tom Grissom, keep on Learning.

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