Friday, August 17, 2012

A Replacement for the Google Listen app

Podcasts are a terrific source of information for both professional growth and personal entertainment. Since Google has cancelled their Listen podcast app, I've been searching for a new podcast app for Android. I listen to a LOT of podcasts, both at work and on the treadmill while I run, so it was really important to me to find an app that had the right mix of features and ease of use. While I know that Google Listen is far from perfect, I liked its easy to use interface (once you know its quirks) and the integration with Google Reader. The fact that it was free also didn't hurt.

I've been testing three different apps; DoggCatcher, Pocket Casts, and BeyondPod. Unfortunately, none of these apps are completely free (BeyondPod has a limited free version), so I needed to shell out a little money to give them all a fair test. Normally, I wouldn't buy an app just to test it out, but because podcast discovery and playback is so important to me, I made an exception.

After lots of testing, I've found that all three apps could get the job done, but with varying degrees of effort.

DoggCatcher turned out to be my least favorite of the three, mostly because of its cluttered and confusing user interface. I don't want to have to struggle to move around the app and learn its basic features. I think that, over time, I could get used to the interface and the app would be fine. Honestly, I just didn't want (or think I should) have to put in that much effort to learn to get around and use it.

The interface for Pocket Casts was much simpler than DoggCatcher and I was able to learn how to use the app pretty quickly. It also has the coolest icon of all three apps. I wasn't crazy about the red on black color scheme of the interface, but it wasn't a real issue. I really liked the fact that you can bring up an episode's "show notes" right from the player. What turned out to be a deal breaker for me was that you can't add a podcast episode to the playlist unless the episode is fully downloaded. I don't necessarily want to download every episode BEFORE I decide whether or not to add it to the playlist. Yes, I could just automatically download new episodes in the background, but that takes up storage space. Also, there weren't enough options on how to handle what happens when skipping past a playing podcast. My preference is to mark it as listened and remove it from the playlist.

My ultimate choice as the replacement for Google Listen is BeyondPod. Of the three apps I tested, it has the best balance of a good, simple to use interface and a complete feature set. I was able to learn how to navigate the interface fairly quickly and tweak all the settings to my liking (or at least what I'm used to from Google Listen). The Playlist works the way I would expect and I like the fact that I can even add episodes that are not downloaded. In fact, you can add episodes to the Playlist that you you never intend to download and would prefer to simply stream. The only feature that I really want that BeyondPod doesn't currently have is the ability to sync your progress and playlist between devices. Supposedly, this feature is in development. All in all, BeyondPod is an excellent podcast player and it will be what I use going forward.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Stuff I brought to SchoolCIO and ISTE 2012

One of the toughest things I find about packing for conferences and events like the SchoolCIO Tech Summit and ISTE 2012 is figuring out what technology tools I need/want to bring. Obviously, some of the deciding factors are:
  • How long will I be away from home and the office?
  • How will I be traveling?
  • Will I be presenting/speaking at the event/conference?
  • What tools and services are available at the hotel and conference facilities?
  • Can I count on ubiquitous and reliable WiFi access?
Since this was a fairly long trip for me, both in time (8 days/2 events) and in distance (RI to CA), here is what I decided to bring and why.

Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook

During this trip, I expect to do lots of communicating with colleagues using Gmail and Twitter, writing a few blog posts, storing and accessing important travel information in Evernote, attending some sessions focused on Google Docs, and making a presentation using Google Docs, I decided that a Chromebook would be the perfect "main working" device. I am not a huge iPad (or tablet) fan when it comes to writing (the virtual keyboard is just OK) and I think that adding an external keyboard just creates an inferior netbook/notebook.

The Chomebook provides me with a very thin and light notebook that works very well for all the tasks that I listed above, as well as provides battery life that will last all day. My old Cr-48 Chromebook can be frustratingly slow at times, but this new model from Samsung is fast and smooth. I've even been testing the Chrome Remote Desktop Beta and it allows me to easily access a Windows 7 desktop back in my office if I need to respond to an emergency that can't wait until I return. Yes, I could also have brought an Ultrabook or a MacBook Air (I have neither), but I like the fact that if something happens to the Chromebook, I won't lose any important data. It's also much less expensive and I feel more comfortable bringing it than I might with a more expensive notebook.

The only rub is that in order for a ChromeOS device to be useful, it needs to have internet access. Otherwise, it's pretty much a brick. So this leads me to...

Verizon 4G mobile hotspot

I've attended too many workshops, events and conferences that were unable to provide reliable WiFi access. When you think about it, it's an incredibly daunting task, especially if the event is expected to be large AND the attendees will largely be edtech geeks (present company included) who will be carrying multiple devices. So, bringing your own internet access is almost a necessity. While I could use my phone as a hotspot, it's only 3G and that is a sure fire way to drain the battery. The Verizon mobile hotspot is a perfect solution. It's small, light and will provide 4G speeds (if available in the area).

Dell Latitude 2120 netbook

Honestly, the only reason I'm bringing the Dell netbook is because I am scheduled to present a Case Study at the SchoolCIO Tech Summit and I need to connect to a projector (my presentation was created is using Google Docs). The new Chromebook arrived 2 days before I was scheduled to fly out to San Diego and does not have a standard VGA output. It does have a DisplayPort, which would work fine, but I didn't have time to pick up a DisplayPort to VGA adapter. So, the Dell netbook will provide me with a fairly small and light machine that I can connect using VGA. Once I can pickup an adapter for the new Chromebook, I won't need to consider bringing this netbook or a fullsize laptop when I need to present.

Motorola Xoom tablet

While I don't like tablets for general writing, I do like them quite a bit for checking email, keeping up with Twitter, and watching video/Netflix. The flight from the east coast to San Diego is a long one and I know that I'm going to need something to keep me occupied. While I will certainly read and play some games, nothing passes the time like watching a good (or even fair) movie. I can't count on the airline to show a movie at all, never mind one I want to watch, so bringing along an iPad or tablet is a great alternative. I am probably one of the few people on the planet who prefers an Android tablet (if it's running Ice Cream Sandwich) to an iPad, so the Xoom tablet fits the bill. Yes, it is heavier and clunkier than an iPad, but I still prefer the integration with my Google accounts and the flexibility of Android widgets/notifications. Offline movies from the Google Play work very well, provided you can find something you want to watch (the selection is nowhere near as good as iTunes).

Amazon Kindle

I am a voracious reader, so I expect to spend quite a bit of time on the plane reading some of the books I picked up using an Amazon gift card I received as a Father's Day present. I don't like reading on an LCD screen, so using a laptop or tablet is not an option. The e-ink version of the Amazon Kindle (or B&N Nook) is perfect for recreational reading. The device is small, light, and has terrific battery life. It's definitely a lot easier that dragging along 2 or 3 paperbacks (or books from my local public library).

Nintendo 3DS

Again, I'm going to be spending a whole bunch of time traveling by air, so having a variety of things to keep me busy during the long flights is a plus. I don't normally have much time to play video games, but when I do, the Nintendo 3DS is perfect solution. It's small, has games that I enjoy, and I can network and play with/against my 10-year old son. I also really enjoy the StreetPass feature that allows you to virtually "meet" other 3DS users that you pass by. Just leave the device in sleep mode, put it in your bag or pocket, and you will "tag" other people you pass by that also have a 3DS. I'm thinking that at a conference of 18,000+ participants, I should meet a whole bunch of new gaming "friends".

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Setting up an iTunes Account/Apple ID without a credit card

Deploying iOS devices on a large scale can be difficult and time consuming, partially due to the way that Apple handles (controls) the distribution of "apps", both free and paid. One way to make the process easier is for each individual user to setup their own iTunes account/Apple ID so that they can download and install their own free apps. Unfortunately, the process of creating an iTunes account/Apple ID without a credit card is less than obvious.

Apple has instructions that you can follow here,

I've also created some step by step instructions with screenshots that may be easier to follow. You can find them at

Hope this helps

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Using Google Docs with Students

Article cross-posted from the RISTE blog

Like many districts, our teachers and staff members have so many things on their plates that finding time to offer Professional Development is becoming increasingly difficult. In an attempt to offer more flexible and accessible PD sessions, we are just starting to use Adobe Connect to host and record short webinars for staff.

I just recorded our inaugural webinar for high school staff on "Using Google Docs with Students". Overall, I think that it turned out pretty well. I definitely still have a lot to learn and improve upon, but it wasn't too difficult to get to this point.

I wanted to share our initial effort in the event that the content may prove to be worthwhile to your own schools. I would also love to get some comments about how your own teachers are using Google Docs with their own students and build up some "best practices".

The recorded webinar can be found at

The accompanying presentation can be found at

I have also embedded the presentation below

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Google Calendar Daily Agenda

This post is cross-posted from the RISTE blog at

Howdy RISTE colleagues! We're hoping that this blog will grow to be a repository of "tips and tricks" and knowledge that we can all share with each other. Here's a quick tip about how you can setup Google Calendar to email you a daily agenda each morning. For those of us without secretaries, that Daily Agenda email can be invaluable.

1. When looking at your Google Calendar, click the "gear" icon in the upper right corner of the page and select "Calendar settings"

2. On the Calendar Settings page, click the "Calendars" link

3. Click the "Notifications" to the right of your calendar

4. Check the "Daily Agenda" box and click "Save"

5. You can also click the "Notifications" links next to the Group/Shared calendars that you have access to and have notifications from those calendars included in your Daily Agenda email

I hope this helps and that your new Google "virtual secretary" keeps you from missing important meetings!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When rock bands were mighty...

Yesterday, Van Halen released their first album, "A Different Kind of Truth", in almost 14 years. It's the first album featuring David Lee Roth as the lead singer since the release of "1984" 28 years ago. I bought the new album over breakfast almost out of feelings of duty and loyalty. Van Halen was my favorite band in high school (yes, I am getting old) and Eddie Van Halen was the main reason I started playing guitar. Even though Van Halen's music slowly and inexorably declined after "1984" in the "Van Hagar" era, I spent years learning my favorite guitar riffs and songs from all the Van Halen albums from the David Lee Roth era. The band had a swing and energy that was never replicated after the lineup changed.

I'm pleasantly surprised by the new album. Like many old school Van Halen fans, I was worried that it would be an embarrassing last gasp by a once formidable band, but overall it's pretty good, if not quite great. The familiar mid-range crunch of Eddie's guitar is all there, along with the usual bag of tricks. At times it seems like he's trying too hard to squeeze in every possible fill, squeal and divebomb in an attempt to make up for the long hiatus, but it's apparent the man can still play. David Lee Roth can't hit the high notes any more and his juvenile lyrics seem incredibly dated, but he does bring that unmistakable attitude and swing that has been missing from Van Halen for 28 years. Alex Van Halen and Eddie's son Wolfgang make a pretty tight rhythm section, but Michael Anthony's soaring vocal harmonies are sorely lacking.

I'm not sure if I'll continue to listen to the new album long-term (although good, it's a little too familiar to those old albums without bringing anything new to the table), but listening the last two days brought me back to a time when rock bands were "mighty". It was a time when some bands were so good, so big and so influential that you couldn't imagine them ever stopping. Led Zeppelin (a little before my time, but I quickly learned to appreciate how impressive they were) is an example of one of these mighty bands. Van Halen in the David Lee Roth era was often referred to as the "Mighty Van Halen". Metallica evolved into a mighty foursome with the "Master of Puppets" album through the "Black" album. Based on their influence alone, you also need to include Nirvana in the same category.

It occurred to me that rock bands really started becoming "mighty" with the inception of the record album. Before albums really took off, there were certainly larger than life musicians and groups releasing singles and "45s", but the Beatles and Bob Dylan seemed to really perfect and popularize the concept of a cohesive collection of songs or an "album" (think "Sgt Pepper" and "Rubber Soul"). That led to a whole range of mighty rock bands, far too many to list, leading up to the time when I was a budding musician in high school.

Rock music took a hit after the end of Nirvana and with the rise of hip hop. Try as I might, I can't really think of a "mighty" band since. There are certainly some contenders; the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Green Day, Foo Fighters, but I'm not sure they have the same scope and reach as the rock bands that were their predecessors. Now that we're in the iTunes era, I'm not sure we'll ever have that definitive "mighty" band again. The album has become less important and de-emphasized when you can purchase just the songs you like for $.99. It's almost like we've traveled back to the time of the "45" singles. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Indie musicians and artists can create, publish and distribute their music much more easily without the support (and cost) of a record label, producer, and studio time. I just wonder what this means for the future of the prototypical "mighty" rock band.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts and what bands they consider to be "mighty"