The 2-in-1 PCs are coming (slowly) - Chromebooks and Android Apps

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A long time ago, at the dawn of the mobile revolution I believed that (laptop-tablet) hybrids were the future of education. After having worked with one of the first available devices, the Asus Transformer Prime, I was convinced that it would take many years before that future would arrive.  Not that the Prime was a bad device, on the contrary it was a very advanced one at that time - but it was a tablet and only useful as a substitute for a laptop in a very limited way.

Ever since then I have gone with two devices: a Chromebook and a Nexus tablet, both combined being more affordable than most of the hybrid solutions that are out there. Even so, I have tried a number of devices that didn’t cut it for me in the end:  

  • iPad plus BT keyboard: no way this could ever work as a laptop for me
  • Microsoft Surface RT: that one was a complete failure to begin with (Microsoft gave them away to teachers for a very low price because they could sell it, doing probably more harm than good for its reputation by doing so).
  • Microsoft Surface 3: even though very versatile, I use it neither as a tablet nor as a laptop  as it provides inferior user experience for both uses.

On paper the newer Surface models look very good. In practice I would say they can’t beat the experience (speed, battery life, ease of use) of much cheaper Chromebooks.
My initial expectations were therefore not too high when Google announced Android apps on Chromebooks. And even though the first reviews were quite ravishing, I’m still a bit underwhelmed after receiving the Playstore on my Asus Chromebook Flip.

The bad
  • For the time being you can only use Android apps in the dev channels (which still has lots of bugs itself) on a limited number of devices,
  • A lot of Android apps don’t work or crash frequently (among them my favourite anatomy app Anatronica)
  • A lot of apps have no responsive design and look plainly awful and are awkward to use on the Chromebook
  • Trackpad - touchscreen confusion: the trackpad usually works quite well, whereas touch doesn’t always. With a drawing app I have installed drawing with the trackpad works fine, but drawing with your fingers isn’t possible
  • With many tablet apps (e.g. ebooks) the experience is much worse on the Chromebook than on a tablet (resolution, clunkier device and touch issues).

The good
  • It’s now possible to do a lot more with a chromebook, including audio recording, drawing and playing virtual instruments.
  • Tons of educational apps are available and you don’t have to pay for them again if you have already purchased them for your smartphone or tablet.
  • Also a lot more content is available that is not available on the web (e.g. magazines, Google Newsstand, epub books, etc.)
  • Google seems to be really working hard on making the experience a good one. In the past week I have not only got the Playstore on my chromebook but also two more updates that have brought  some improvements, such as clearly marking which apps are Chrome or web apps and which apps are Android apps.

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Takeway: even though I’m happy about the addition of Android apps to Chromebook, I don’t think I will be using a lot of them in the near future, as the experience is often much better on a tablet or smartphone. Having said that I am excited about the additional potential of Chromebooks for classroom use. Personally I prefer a Chromebook Flip over a Microsoft Surface in the classroom. The chromebook costs less than half the price of a Surface and feels way more productive to me.  

I have never felt the need to install many applications on my chromebook in the first place as I work primarily in my browser and there is definitely no need to install apps like YouTube or Quizlet. However the addition of Android apps on Chromebooks should make the choice for schools easier: chromebooks, tablet or more expensive Windows hybrids. I suppose with literally thousands of educationals apps (way more than there are available for Windows) the choice shouldn’t be too hard. And even though the number of apps really need might turn out to be very low effectively, their availability will hopefully remove the  psychological barrier that keep many schools from choosing chromebooks in the first place.

As Microsoft has also been putting a lot of effort into its hybrid models it will be interesting to see what the future brings. Microsoft has had a good head start and has made real progress compared to the first Surface model. However, the arrival of Android apps on the desktop, via Chrome OS and Android desktops (e.g. remix OS, possibly also raspberry pi in the near future) might pose a serious threat to Microsoft’s ecosystem which would become obsolete for many non-business users.


Google Cardboard - discovering a city by numbers

I’m preparing a lesson about a virtual trip to London as a part of an end of term project. The idea is that students use Google Cardboard to discover London (or any other place). Just looking through Google cardboard does create a “wow-effect”, but it doesn’t make the students learn anything new. In order to focus the students’ attention on specific points it only takes a few additional steps. The ideas is that students find out about some specific numbered points themselves using Google Search, Google Image Search and Google Maps to learn about these sites.  Here is how to do it:

  1. Make a photosphere using Google Camera (install from Playstore; some smartphone are not compatible though). Alternatively download a photosphere from the web using Google Search or Google+ (there are tons of photospheres on Google+, just ask the owner's permission if you can use one of them in class)
  2. Upload the photosphere to Google Drive and edit with photo editing software like Pixlr. Alternatively copy to desktop and edit with Photoshop or Gimp. Number the sights you want your students to find out.
  3. Download to phone again and use the Cardboard Demo app (available from Playstore) to display you numbered photosphere.
  4. Have the students do research on the web, using Google Maps (to find the place), Google Image Search (to confirm their hunches) and Google Search (to find out more the sights).
  5. Get everyone together again and talk about the solutions and the additional information the students have found.

Alternatively you can also share out a hardcopy of a Google Map for each group and the students have to mark the sights on the map.

You can download the London Eye example here.


Creating quick tests with Google Form grid questions

One of the most popular methods for creating online quizzes and tests for teacher is using Google Forms with the Flubaroo add-on. I use the same combination for tests which I already have in paper or pdf form. As typing out all questions would be a bit cumbersome and redundant, I actually just use paper/pdf with a Google Forms “answer sheet”, which then will look something like this:

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This works particularly well with standardized tests (like the Cambridge English certificates) which use mostly multiple choice, true/false questions. This is a huge time saver, as you don’t have to type the questions themselves and you can quickly create a lot of questions instantly. I do that by copying the number of questions and possible answers from a Google sheet. Say you need 12 questions with four options all you need to do is copy and paste them from the Google sheet.

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The students then are sent two links: one to the pdf file containing the test (which can also be printed out) and one to the Google Form to enter their answers. As this kind test is mobile friendly, the students could also use their smartphones to to that.

Using the Flubaroo add-on (there are plenty of tutorial for that) the answers are automatically graded based on a model answer by the teacher. The score and the correct answers can also be sent back to the students. This way an existing test can be quickly turned into an both student and teachers can get immediate feedback.

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Google Slides mobile with Chromecast support

Google Slides has been my favourite presentation software in the classroom for years now, the main reasons being its ease of use, speed and Google Drive integration (e.g. inserting images, linking to other files). One thing I have missed though was the integration with Google’s own Chromecast, which now has finally arrived (together with AirPlay support) in its mobile apps.


So far you could do Slides presentations on Chromecast only via mirroring, which has a number of drawbacks:
  • only Android 4.4 and higher devices support mirroring
  • battery drain due to constant connection and screen on
  • no speaker notes as those would be seen on the big screen

All these drawbacks disappear in the Chromecast integrated version of Slides: you can view your speaker notes and even turn off your device’s screen during presentations. And even iOS devices are supported.
As you can expect with Google first versions Chromecast support is not perfect, but it is actually pretty good for a start. Here are the pros and cons:

You can remote control your presentation with the following features:
  • shows previous and next slides
  • shows speaker notes
  • shows presentation timer
  • allows video playback and pause

Here is what I still miss
  • slides slider for skipping several slides at a time
  • a video slider for fine grained video control and full screen mode
  • a blackout button to temporarily turn off presentation
  • a pointer

Some of these are only minor inconveniences, however, as there are easy workarounds for them. Skipping several slide: go back to main presentation screen and choose the slide you want to continue with (you also have to reconnect the Chromecast). Video: for full screen viewing all you need to do is enlarge the video to full slide size in design mode. If you need to work a lot inside a video (frequent replay, skipping, etc.), it would be best to Chromcast from the YouTube app and if you absolutely need a pointer you can use Chromecast mirroring.

All in all, the first version of Slides with Chromecast support is highly usable and I’m looking forward to seeing more useful features in future.


Using Google Cast for Audio in the classroom

Google Cast for Audio has just launched and being a foreign language teacher, I’m very excited about its potential in the classroom. So I ordered the first set of affordable speakers (LG Music Flow H3 for €127) which I consider more than suitable for a classroom.

In brief, Google Cast Audio is the audio version of Chromecast and is supported by all apps and devices that support Chromecast (LG Flow Player, Google Play Music, Pocketcast, etc.). Of course you can play any local mp3 file wirelessly over wifi, but it get’s really interesting when you play from the Cloud.  


The advantage of Google Cast Audio over other wireless ways of delivering audio (e.g. Bluetooth) are:
  • faster and easier to connect
  • very reliable due to more bandwidth
  • better quality audio
  • doesn’t require any resources on your mobile device as the audio is not streamed from the device but from the network

As you can upload all your music and audio files to Google Play Music, you don’t need much more than that for your needs (music, podcasts, foreign language files, etc.). If you don’t want to use Google Play Music, there is a variety of other services available to choose from (Deezer, etc.) When it comes to using podcasts you might want to use an app like Pocketcasts for streaming a podcast rather than downloading it.  

I also use Google Drive to store sound files. Of course you can also play audio files from Google Drive, but you have to download them first (best done before your class) and keep them on your device.

Chromebooks currently don’t seem to support Cast Audio (the chromecast extension couldn’t find the audio device). However, it is still possible to connect the H3 speaker via Bluetooth.


How to download subtitles or captions from YouTube

YouTube is probably the most used digital tool in classrooms all over the world today and lends itself for a variety of purposes ranging from short listening comprehension during classes to flipped classroom activities.
Often it would be useful to have the subtitles (captions) available for preparation or follow up activities, particularly in foreign language classes. Unfortunately there is no option to download subs from YouTube directly. There are, however various workarounds. The fastest way is also the geekest one and it works like this.
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  1. Open the video you want to extract the subtitles from in Google Chrome.
  2. Turn on the subtitles in the bottom right menu (often only auto-generated subtitles are available, which you might still want to download, even though the transcription is not perfect). Turn on developer tools and filter for “timedtext” and you get the URL link to the chosen subtitles file  in xml format (open by double clicking and a new broswer tab will open).
  3. To extract the text from the xml file I save it to my Drive (using the “save to Drive” Chrome extension).
  4. Finally I open the XML file with the oXygen XML Webapp (you have to connect it with xml files once using the “connect more apps” option when opening it). And voilà. That’s all you need to do.

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If you find that method too geeky, here is another one:
Use to donwload an .srt file. Rename the file to .txt and then you can manually copy the text from the file - however it takes much more time than the first method which really only takes a few seconds once you get the hang of it. 


Using quick links in Chrome to existing and new Google Drive files

Google Drive is great for quickly finding your documents. The search function will find almost anything in a matter of seconds (even if hidden deep inside documents, pdf and image files) and you can star frequently used documents.

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However, there is even a faster way to your documents than staring them. By using Chrome bookmarks you can access your files without having to go into your Drive in the first place. I do this typically with files I use almost on a daily basis, like my lesson planner (a doc)  and my gradebooks (Google spreadsheets). All I need to do is star the document in the omnibox and then I can use autocomplete  to get to them quickly, e.g. “less..:” for lesson planner, or the grade for which I need the gradebook.  

You can even create new documents this way. However you will need to create the link manually in your bookmarks:
  1. Go  to chrome://bookmarks/
  2. create a new bookmark to
  4. name it “new doc” (or anything you will remember, like “create document”)
  5. and then you will be able to use the bookmark either from the omnibox, the bookmarks bar or the bookmarks page.

If you want to create shortcuts for a new slide or sheet, you only need to substitute the “document” part of the link with “presentation” and “spreadsheets” respectively.

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