Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Daily Research Workflow: Read. Store. Share.

A recent survey found that the average American spends 973.2 hours a day online. Not really. But it definitely feels that way. And since we spend so much time online, often doing the same task hundreds of times (closing a tab, opening a link, sending a tweet), we condemn ourselves to a Sisyphus-like existence if we're inefficient in the way we work.

When I took my current position, I determined to take 20 efficient, focused minutes every day to help me stay on top of the world of edtech. During that 20 minutes, I
  1. read posts from 100+ blogs
  2. store resources (and tag them for later use)
  3. share links to 10 useful resources to Twitter
In the interest of helping the world become more productive, I thought I'd offer the tools and workflow I use to stay current and connected in 20 minutes day.

The Tools


I follow a whole mess of blogs that focus on educational technology, and another bunch that deal with other topics I find interesting, most of which relate back to education. Going to over a hundred  blogs a day is not going to happen (especially in my 20 minute time frame), so I use FlowReader to collect all their feeds in one place.

There are several RSS readers out there (Feedly being the most popular), but FlowReader was my rebound reader after the one I had been using bit the dust. I thought it would only be a brief, fleeting romance until I stumbled on something better, but I've found that I'm drawn to FlowReader's simplicity: a clean, no-frills list of new posts. 


Diigo lets you bookmark and organize online resources and get to them from anywhere. You can add tags for a quick search and create lists to share with other Diigo users. says there are 87 sites similar to Diigo, so you should find the one that works for you, I just like Diigo's ease-of-use. Also, educators can get an upgraded plan for free...

Diigo is where I collect everything I find that I think might be useful, either for myself or the teachers I work with. I tag resources by content area (ELA, math), device type (Chromebook, iPad), or ISTE student standard (collaboration, research) so I can do a quick search by any of those terms later on and find a resources that I've already curated. It makes trainings way easier when I have a bank of ideas ready to draw from.


The times of day I do my research (early morning, lunch) are not always when the rest of my PLN is perusing their Twitter feed. If I'm going to be a good resource for my online community, I need to schedule my posts to go out at a time when people will actually see them. For that, I use Buffer.

The free version of Buffer lets you schedule up to 10 posts that you want to share. Set your times for when most of your community is online and Buffer will automatically send them for you. The bulk of my scheduled tweets go out between 8:00 - 9:30 p.m. and 2:00 - 3:00 a.m. (CST) since these are prime times for interactions. When people are reading, favoriting, and retweeting, I feel useful, which means that I'm accomplishing my third goal.


The three tools listed above are all held together with Chrome. I'm a diehard user, even though I question some of the recent tweaks made to my beloved browser (Silverlight, where art thou?). My zealous fanaticism stems primarily from the existence of extensions, those handy little next-door neighbors of the Omnibox that save an unbelievable amount of time on routine tasks (both Diigo and Buffer have handy ones). 

The Workflow

  1. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
    Seriously. If you don't, you'll go down the rabbit hole and never come back.

  2. Go to FlowReader.

  3. Open posts in bulk.
    Scroll through your list of new posts in FlowReader, using Ctrl + click on the title to open the posts that look interesting in new tabs. When you open several at a time this way, you don't have to click back to FlowReader in between.

  4. Use Ctrl + Click to open posts in bulk
    (watch the new tabs open at the top)

  5. Read the posts.
    After opening five-ish posts, if you're on a Chromebook (like I usually am), use the 3-finger slide on the trackpad to move over a tab. If not, use Ctrl + Tab to cycle through your tabs.

  6. Close tabs you don't need.
    If you scan the blog and it doesn't look useful, use Ctrl + W to close that tab and you'll automatically move to the next one.

  7. If the post is a good resource, bookmark it in Diigo.
    Use Ctrl + Alt + D to open the "Save to Diigo" dialog box.  When you save, make sure you add tags. You can select from the suggested ones or enter your own. If you use a two-word tag, enclose it in quotes ( "educational technology") so Diigo knows they belong together. After you enter your last tag, press the spacebar, then use Ctrl + Enter to save the bookmark.

  8. Ctrl + Alt + D to add to Diigo

  9. Once you save, share.
    Alt + B is the shortcut for the Buffer extension, or you can Buffer any image from the post to share with your tweet. To include an image, right-click on any image in the post (or two-finger tap on a Chromebook), then select "Buffer this image" from the pop-up menu.

    In the dialog box, edit the tweet (add hashtags, remove the default clutter) and use Ctrl + Enter to add the tweet to your queue. This puts it in your Buffer to go out on schedule. You can also choose "Share Now" or "Share Next" by clicking the blue down arrow next to the "Add to Queue" button. 

  10. Use Alt + B to add to Buffer

  11. Close the tab.
    Use Ctrl + W to close the tab, then repeat the process with the next post.
  12. Clear FlowReader.
    At the top, make sure it's set to show "Unread Only," then select "Mark All As Read." Refresh the page (F5) to clear everything so it's delightfully pristine and has that new-car smell about it.

That's what works for me. What does your workflow look like?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Recipe for a 1:1 Pilot

I'm sitting in a room, surrounded by boxes that hold the focus of my life for the 2015-16 school year. Really, the focus will be the students who are using what's inside the boxes, but you get the idea. 400 Chromebooks, 200 laptops, coupled with lots of planning, fun, stressing, planning, spreadsheeting, budgeting, convincing, planning, coaching, learning and evaluating. And planning. I'm ready to get cookin'.

So what's the recipe for a successful 1:1 pilot? To be honest, I don't know: we're only at the beginning. But let me tell you the blend of ingredients we're using to try and get there.

Take 20 courageous (a word I don't use lightly) teachers. Tell them they're going to be pioneers, blazing a path where no teachers in our district have traveled before. Let them know that we are all learning with them and that they have the privilege and responsibility of shaping where our district's digital learning goes in the future. Then be grateful when they don't run away.

Toss in 1100 students from 4th-6th grade. Trust in them and believe that they can handle the responsibilities that come with technology: walking the narrow path of digital citizenship, becoming creators with an active stake in their own learning, and communicating and collaborating productively with others. Also, hope that they won't learn about MIL-STD-810 testing and attempt it on their own with the devices.

Stir in "specialists" who don't feel incredibly special: just teachers at heart who think technology is a good thing for students when it's used the right way. Stick us in classrooms to coach and prod, question and comfort, encourage, laugh, model, assist, and generally do whatever we can to release the unbelievable amount of potential in the previous two ingredients.

Sprinkle in tools and terminology that are a part of digital learning, like some delightfully airy Dell 11 Chromebooks and robust 3340 laptops, all bursting with Google Apps and every web-based tool you can think of. I guess the standard edtech buzzwords will be part of the blend too, and that's okay. The goal there is to avoid "language with more syllables than meaning" and to not dilute the flavor with vacuous vocabulary and endless acronyms.

Finally, distribute everything over a supportive base of administrators, principals and board members; insert it into the pressure cooker of the importance of the moment; and pray to the Lord on high that after you've done all you can do, it comes out looking like the vision you had for it in the beginning.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

3 Smashing Tools to Create Online PD (Part 3)

The essential question of part 3 is "How do I distribute certificates to everyone who completes my online course?" The answer? Autocrat.

In the ever-expanding world of Add-Ons, all the indispensable ones seem to be coming out of New Visions Cloud Lab. These developers work closely with teachers to create tools that actually meet a need and solve a problem, and with Autocrat, they've knocked it out of the park.

Autocrat is a mail merge utility that can take all that data that accumulates over the course of a school year, merge it into formats that are actually useful (letters, reports, etc.), and can automatically email it to students or parents. According to New Visions, Autocrat has merged nearly 3.9 million documents since its release, so it looks like they're doing something right.

Using Autocrat to Create Certificates

You can set Autocrat to send certificates automatically after teachers complete a survey or course evaluation. (Wesley Fryer has a great video on this that seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet, so if anyone has the link, please put it in the comments and I'll add it to this post.)

In my professional development example, though, I'm manually checking responses and only running Autocrat if the teacher completes all the requirements. This means setting up a conditional merge (easy to do) so Autocrat only creates and emails certificates for the teachers that meet the completion criteria.

The Small Bytes playlist below starts with making your own basic certificate with merge tags, then goes step-by-step through creating your merge, setting up the email your teachers will receive, and creating a condition to only run certificates for the teachers who meet the criteria.

Once you've set up your merge, just send the link to your Classmill course out to your teachers and staff. Best of luck trying something new and smashing, flipping and blending your back-to-school professional development!

Monday, July 20, 2015

10+1 Takeaways from the @GoogleForEdu Texas Roadshow

(note: If you're frantically searching for the final post in the "3 Smashing Tools for Online PD" series, fear not, it's coming later this week. For now, please enjoy this brief intermission.)

Google for Education has taken their show on the road in the Lone Star State, mainly traveling the I-35 corridor, but with jaunts to Houston and West Texas tossed in. Today I had the pleasure of getting schooled (in a good way) by the folks from Google and the Highland Park tech team on their path to GAFE implementation. Here are 10 takeaways from the day.

  1. Google Cardboard has to be experienced to be believed
    We had 30 minutes to explore Cardboard before we started, and I visited an Icelandic geyser, an aviation museum, and experienced the history of Marie Antionette in 18th century France. Pair Cardboard with Google Expeditions and you've got an unforgettable way to get kids to expand their thinking to a global level.

  2. 68% of Fortune 500 companies use Google Apps
    With this fact in mind, why do we keep having conversations about students having to know how to use Windows and MS Office to be prepared for the future? Legacy system advocates, can we just move on?

  3. Resources for questions about trust and privacy
    Google's information on trust, privacy and safety is obviously full of useful information. If you need a ready-made presentation to show to stakeholders, Dr. Henry Thiele's very practical slide deck "Killing the FUD and Dispelling the Myths around GAFE and Chromebooks" is an excellent starting point.

    And for those responsible for the privacy of students in your district, the COSN Privacy ToolKit is a must have resource for navigating the legalities surrounding student data.

  4. Synergyse
    An easily-deployed, on-demand professional development Chrome extension, Synergyse walks teachers through the functions of Google Apps as they're using them. It's like having an edtech coach living inside your computer or constantly looking over your shoulder, but in a way that's a touch less invasive than constantly sharing personal space with an IC.

  5. lets you turn Google Sheets into flashcards, name pickers, progress charts, and certificates of completion. It's one of those tools you may not need immediately, but the time will come when you'll be glad you know it's there.

  6. Chromebook Public Kiosk mode
    A handy trick for lower grade levels, in Public Kiosk Mode Chromebooks can be used by students without anyone logging in. You can also set up a Chromebook as a Single App Kiosk with only one app running in full screen mode, which will be essential as state testing moves online. We know that Pearson and ETS are using apps that are now compatible with Chromebooks (TestNav 8), so in Texas, all-online testing is probably sooner than we think. That's great news, especially since the first round of computerized assessment went so smoothly last year...

  7. "The best device is the one you're actually going to use."
    I enjoyed this off-handed quote from Erika, a tech coach at Highland Park High School.

  8. Cloudready turns your old computers into Chromebooks
    If you have a computer less than 8 years old, Cloudready replaces Windows/Mac OSX with a customized version of Chromium so you can have the same Google Apps experience (and management) that you have with your current Chromebooks. 

  9. GADS and GAPS
    I'll be the first to admit the depths of my technical ignorance. Until two days ago, I pronounced Linux as "lie-nucks" (a shout out to my geeky friends who set me straight) and I only recently figured out what Active Directory (AD) does. But I had always been told that AD (and the passwords stored there) couldn't sync with Google Apps. The Google Apps Directory Sync (GADS) and the Google Apps Password Sync (GAPS) take care of these issues, which means one less password for everyone to remember. 

  10. Google Drive permissions can now be set by Organizational Units (OUs)
    If you're the GAFE Admin for your district, remember when you had to lock down Google Drive so no one in your organization could share outside your domain? You had good intentions (trying to keep your students safe) but it irritated the fire out of your teachers because they were under the same restrictions as the kids. Now you can restrict students' Drive sharing permissions so they can only share with others in your organization, yet still allow your staff to share freely. This is a much-needed change that comes from the incredibly responsive Edu developers at Google.

    (A special thanks to Peter Henrie from Amplified IT for explaining these last two takeaways in a way that even I could understand.)

Bonus Takeaway:
Powergistics Storage Solutions

Looking for a storage solution for when your Chromebooks are staying in one classroom? Powergistics makes a wall-mounted storage solution that frees up space and can improve the flow of distributing devices day in and day out in your classroom.

It was a fantastic, eye-opening day, one of those rare events where the things you learn you can put to use immediately. Fantastic job by the team at Google and Highland Park ISD for putting it all together, and if you can catch one of the last two roadshow in Texas (if they're not already full), I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

3 Smashing Tools to Create Online PD (Part 2)

In part 1, we looked at Classmill, a free drag-and-drop course builder you can use to develop blended professional development for your teachers and staff.

You can use it to create entirely online classes, or give flipped PD a go and let teachers learn the material beforehand. The goal of flipping is to fill your face-to-face sessions with productive work because everyone comes with the basics already under their belts.

So Classmill is fantastic, except that it's missing a key piece: assessment. To fill that gaping void (take note, makers of Classmill), we'll use Google Forms with Classmill's embed capabilities.

(If you're familiar with Google Forms, you can skip this paragraph.) Google Forms is a free form builder that's a part of the Google Apps suite. It lets you create forms with a variety of questions (multiple choice, text, lists, checkboxes, scales and matrices), share them, then sit back and watch your responses march tidily into a spreadsheet. If you'd like to learn more, check out this Small Bytes playlist on the basics of Google Forms.

Embedding a Form in Classmill

Once you've set up your modules in Classmill (see part 1), you'll want to create a final module named "Assessment." (Or name it "Rhonda." Really, what you call it doesn't matter.) Go to that module and click on "Embed" in the media toolbar at the top. This is where you'll insert your Form once it's finished.

Start your Form with name and email questions, which will play a part in the Autocrat mail merge process that comes later on, then add your assessment items.

Once your Form is complete, click the "Send Form" button in the top right hand corner and select "Embed." Use Ctrl + C to copy the embed code, go back to Classmill, and use Ctrl + V to paste the code into your module. Once that's done, so are you. Your Form is now a part of your course.

Embedding a Form in Classmill

In part 3, we'll explore using Autocrat (a Forms Add-On) to help automate the process of distributing certificates, which your teachers will then, of course, proudly display in gilded mahogany frames next to their teaching credentials in their classrooms.

Friday, July 17, 2015

3 Smashing Tools to Create Online PD (Part 1)

We all want to make professional development more convenient for our teachers, but how do we actually do it?

For the summer, my district wanted to expand our PD offerings by looking at a combination of virtual and face-to-face trainings. Our goal was for teachers to be able to take fully online classes and also have flipped/blended options where half of the course is online and the other half is in person.

Since we don't use a district-wide LMS, I decided to go with a bit of app-smashing using ClassMill for content, Google Forms for assessment, and Autocrat for distributing certificates. 

This post will focus on creating an online class in ClassMill, part 2 will look at setting up and embedding a Form, and part 3 will go through how to set up Autocrat to do the dirty work of certificate distribution for you.

ClassMill is a free tool to create online classes. It's easy to learn, and once you understand the basics (conveniently located in that playlist down there), you can pull together text, videos, links and files to build your class in modules for your teachers.

There are a couple different ways you can choose to use Classmill:
  1. Link Warehouse
    Some of our coaches and coordinators just needed a starting place for our teachers to get to content in other places, so they built modules made up solely of directions and links to take teachers where they needed to go.

  2. Curation
    Other coaches had specific videos on YouTube or Vimeo that they wanted teachers to watch, so they embedded those in the courses. You don't have to create custom content for an effective online course, just use what's already out there (with permission, of course).

  3. Original Content
    I'm a severe control freak. With that in mind, I like to make all my own training and tutorial videos. So if you choose to, you can also record screencasts (with a tool like Screencast-o-Matic) or live presentations (with a Swivl or your phone), upload them to YouTube, then add them to your course. This is the route that a few of us took in creating our courses.
However you choose to use Classmill, you have the flexibility to make it work for you, your time constraints, and your content.

You can take a look at my class here, then check out the Small Bytes playlist below (thanks to Alice Keeler for the inspiration to keep the videos short) for step-by-step directions on setting up your first class.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"That gleam of light..." -Emerson

This quote ends "...yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his."

The goal of this blog is to embrace, share and refine the ideas about technology in teaching that flash across my mind.

Who Am I?

At my core, I'm a teacher. I spent 11 years in the classroom, now I'm at the district level as a blended learning specialist. I started in music, moved to math and science, then ran a blended STEM classroom for a few years where we got to do the cool stuff like build robots, run CNC milling machines, create websites, and a whole lot more.

Now I'm starting my first year coaching and coordinating professional development to help teachers use technology in their classrooms.

Should You Read This?

If you're a teacher, administrator, fellow edtech coach, or possibly just a wanderer in the ever-expanding vastness of the blogosphere, my goal is to have something practical and useful for you here. But please don't stop at just reading. I need your comments and feedback, whether here or on Twitter (@NKeithBlend). Coaching and training teachers is a whole new world for me and my PLN is going to have a strong hand in shaping how well this goes.

What's the Focus? ("focuses"? "focii"?)

  1. Edtech Coaching
    It's my first year doing this, and I want a record that shows how it went, from overzealous, upstart idealism ("Every teacher will warmly embrace new technology!") to the occasional fear and doubt ("Surely I have no new ideas worth sharing with these people...") that comes with coaching professional educators.

    We're also rolling out a 1:1 pilot program with 20 teachers, 1100 students, and a bunch of Chromebooks and laptops, so I'll chronicle the insanity that goes along with that.

  2. Professional Development
    We have all made mistakes in giving our teachers tech and expecting them to know what to do with it. But there are also pockets of innovative excellence where teachers are given choices in how and what they learn, PD is flipped or blended to make it more convenient and effective, and trainings are differentiated to meet teachers where they are. I want to learn how to be better at all of those things.

    In edtech, we have an incredible amount of flexibility and creativity (far more than in the content areas) in what tools we use and how we use them. So I'm going to try some different things when I work with teachers, and I'll come back here and let you know how tremendously well they went, or how horribly they flopped and what you and I can learn from it.

  3. Digital Tools
    Of course, every edtech coach has a bag full of tools and tricks (one of the most useful being that the Chrome dinosaur morphs into an endless runner game) ready to deploy at a moments notice. I'll be looking at ways to use tech in various content areas (probably not the dinosaur thing), along with how best to use online, blended, and virtual environments to respect teachers' time while making sure they have avenues available to learn new things.

    The goal is to make tech practical and easy to implement because teachers do too much already. Edtech solutions need to specifically address the realities of teachers situations and the needs of their students.
My goal is to blog twice a week (if I put that out there, it'll happen, right?), and I'm looking forward to the conversation.