Hello 911? What Tech Do I Need For a House Fire?

Hello, 911? My house is on fire. I had to make this dreaded phone call right before Memorial Day. Fortunately for my wife's sweet tooth I spotted the blaze in our garage on my way out for ice cream. After getting everyone one out of the house and calling 911, I had the presence of mind or stupidity of grabbing both my MacBook Pro and iPad as we were leaving. I figured I would need the devices to communicate with the insurance company, family and friends, and others as we picked up the pieces. A note on safety: Both devices happened to be close at hand and I did not grab the chargers. Do not stay in a burning building to collect valuables, get out immediately! They can be replaced, you cannot. Hours later, the American Red Cross put us up in a hotel for a few days to give us time to start working out the claim with our insurance company. The first thing I did was to get on the computer and start the claims process. It turned out this was the first of technology needs I would have in the three months my family was out of the house as it was being repaired. Here are the technology items I found useful:
Laptop Computer: This was the key piece of equipment I needed to communicate with my insurance company. Emails to claims adjusters and scans of receipts and other documents had to go through my MacBook Pro. Also, it helped in communicating with concerned family and friends through email and Facebook. The photos I uploaded to my website of the fire damage and repair progress also had to be done on my laptop. The family was staying in hotels so the ability to watch videos on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video saved our sanity when there was nothing on the regular television.
iPad: The iPad came in handy in taking notes about repairs and replacing items. We had the document of items that were to be replaced and the values loaded so we could reference it whenever we were in a store. Sometimes we took pictures of damage, repairs, and items were were considering purchasing but not too often. I did come to like using iPhoto to process photos that were taken with other cameras. A sketch app came in handy when drawing what various rooms looked like and how new furniture could be placed. When it was bedtime, the White Noise app helped us drift off to sleep. Finally, when the MacBook was in use or impractical, we could watch video and communicate via email or Facebook.
iPhone: We had to temporarily suspend our account with our telephone service so the iPhones were our means of telephone communications. The cameras on the phones were also very handy for taking necessary photos as well as using Facebook.
Handheld Scanner: Insurance companies love their documentation so a handheld scanner is a must. We purchased a VuPoint Solutions Magic Wand but I wished I could have shopped around a little more. The Magic Wand was inexpensive but it only scans JPEG files so information from receipts could not be transferred to a spreadsheet app. There are scanners that can transfer this information and it will save you lots of time in the long-run. However, for what it does, the Magic Wand does it very well.
Camera: Again, documentation is key when working with insurance companies so a camera is another must. While I did take majority of photos with my iPhone, several were taken using a Nikon D5100 DSLR. The photo detail is better and the zoom lenses do a better job than the iPhone. Also, become familiar with photo enhancing apps such as iPhoto. We realized a mistake when my son claimed his new car stereo was not on the inventory of lost items. Fortunately, we found a picture that included the stereo and forwarded it, along with an enlargement, to our adjuster.
Other Items: I mentioned a sketching app that we used to help pick out furniture. If you can actually get an app that helps draw rooms to scale it would be helpful. Also, learn how to create a screenshot on the iPhone or iPad by simultaneously pressing the home button at the bottom of the screen and the on/off button at the top. I noticed some crown molding was off so I used a level app to check. Sure enough it was off by about 1.8 degrees. I was wondering how to prove this to the contractor when I saw the bubble could be frozen and I took a screenshot. When I emailed the photo to the contractor, I was imagining all of the curses he would say when he saw the email. Later, when I asked him about this, he told me he actually thought it was cool and downloaded the app for himself. Finally, we used Awesome Note to create a folder so we could note down information on items such as ceiling fans and blinds so the contractor could purchase them. Awesome Note allows users to email out notes directly from the app which was another handy time saver. My Livescribe pen was useful in recording notes taken during various conversations and allowing me to keep a digital record or share the information.
I hope you never have to go through the experience my family went through this past summer. However, it pays to be prepared for things such as fires, tornados, floods, hurricanes, and other means to destroy your home. As I have learned, it pays to make sure technology is part of your preparation plans. At least, you can point to my experience whenever students ask, "When will we ever need to use this stuff?"


Movies to Flip Out Over! Teacher Bytes Episode 16

I never really could get into video blogging, vlogging, video podcasting, vodcasting, or whatever you called. The reasons included carrying relatively big camcorders, trying to connect them to a computer, or fooling with web cams that made me look like I was in a 1970's Kung Fu movie. Pure Digital Technology has created a simple video camcorder called The Flip which gives you all of the tools needed to create great videos in one small inexpensive package. With the Flip Video Camera you may be seeing more of my mug than you wish.

The model I recommend is the Ultra with 60 minutes of recording time. This digital camera is fairly well designed. The dimensions of this camera are 4.17" x 2.16" x 1.25" which allows you to carry it in your pocket and carry it anywhere. Whenever you want to record something just turn the camcorder on, point and shoot with one button. There is a 2x digital zoom to get a little closer to the action but not much. It has 2 gigabyte memory which allows for 60 minutes of recording so you don't have to worry about buying and carrying tapes or memory cards. The power source is is two AA batteries which is surprising since most electronic devices have rechargeable batteries these days. Yet, this could be a blessing in disguise since you could purchase rechargeable AA batteries but still purchase alkaline batteries if a back up power source is needed. The viewfinder is a 1.5 inch transflective TFT which should work in bright daylight. Video output can be done in two ways: a TV out jack which you can connect with televisions through RCA jacks or to a computer via a USB jack that pops out the side. Finally, the Flip Ultra has a tripod mount while the Flip does not.

The Flip has a good selection of simple video editing and sharing software built in. There are three different ways to save videos. You can save to a folder the built-in software can put into your computer, save on the camcorder to take to a retail store and burn a DVD, or save for e-mailing. There are some basic editing tools which can trim video on either end and you can create a movie. Muvee.com provides a limited version of its software which can allow you to create a movie in different styles with background music the software selects or you can upload (make sure its legal). You could create voice overs in Audacity, Garage Band, or other audio creation software and import them into your movie creation. Too bad Pure Digital or Muvee.com did not include title and end credit slides in the Flip which could make creations look much better but you can do that in iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. The Flip really shines with its online share capabilities. Finished videos can be uploaded to either AOL Video or YouTube with the push of a button. For more artistic creation you can create video greeting cards online and e-mail links to the site.

For teachers who are looking for a cheap (around $149 for the Flip Ultra) and easy way to integrate video projects into their classes they will be doing back flips over the Flip Camcorder.

How's the tar dinosaurs?

William Penn Charter School English teacher Mark Franek discovered that using web tools such as blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and other applications has improved the quality of his students' writing. The reason for this improvement? Students quickly realized the teacher is not the only one reviewing their work. As he puts it in his editorial in the Christian Science Monitor:

"Teachers who are using blogs, social-networking sites, and video-sharing sites in school settings are giving young people the opportunity to tune their thinking and writing to a larger audience. When students know that anyone in the school with an Internet connection – or around the world, for that matter – can read what they have written or created, it is remarkable how quickly their thinking improves, not to mention the final product."

Mr. Franek's next observation might not get him invited to Friday after school happy hours with his fellow teachers in many schools, "The first dinosaurs into the tar pits of tomorrow will be teachers who refuse to adapt to new technology." This is fairly strong language. I know teachers who absolutely refuse to adapt because they believe their overhead projectors and slides with a video thrown in occasionally are all the technology they need to do their jobs. They are not lazy teachers either, their students score high on Advanced Placement exams. What they don't realize are students are comfortable with blogs, social-networking sites, and video-sharing sites and know how to make them work. These are the tools students will be using when they join the working world.

However, since these teachers perform, administrators are willing to over look these technological shortcomings and this is understandable. Yet, I sometimes wonder how the students of these high performing teachers students would feel if these teachers decided to update technology skills. What would happen to scores of the free response sections AP exams if students practiced using blogs going to millions of readers (some of whom might be experienced exam readers) instead of papers going to one teacher.

Web pulls world into classroom