Archive for the ‘Tools of the Trade’ Category

Moving Digital House to Reclaim Hosting

Full disclosure: I was not asked to write this post by any person or entity, nor did/will I receive any compensation for it.  There are no affiliate links anywhere in this post.

I wanted to do a quick follow-up to this late paragraph from my last post a month ago:

I am intrigued by Reclaim Hosting, and plan to investigate them as an alternative to my current webhosting service – which I must confess has been quite satisfactory as far as customer service is concerned, but I like Reclaim’s connection to and roots in the education community.  I am also drawn to supporting small businesses whenever possible (it also doesn’t hurt that Reclaim’s hosting package costs a fraction of what I currently pay), so this seems like a potential win-win.

Since then, I actually did reach out to Reclaim and set up an account for my webhosting and domain registration.  To my great pleasure, the transfer of my website, blog, and associated self-hosted apps (as well as the Google Apps suite on my family domain) could not have been easier.  Once the domains cleared my previous registrar for transfer (they have a five-day waiting period), Jim and Tim at RH did everything for me quickly and absolutely seamlessly.  They also kept in touch with me throughout the process, and were extremely responsive when I ran into a glitch a few days later while playing with new subdomains and self-hosted apps.

While Reclaim provides large-scale managed software hosting and webhosting solutions aimed at institutions, they also offer smaller-scale domain registration and hosting packages aimed at individual and small-group users.  Their Student/Individual package includes one free domain registration and 2GB of storage for $25 per year, and their Faculty & Organization package ups the storage to 10GB for $45 per year (additional domains are $12/year).  Even with the more expensive package, that ends up working out to about $3.75/month.  That’s not a promotional “starter” rate that will inflate after a few months; that’s just. the. rate.  I think I paid something like four times that for my previous hosting package after the promo pricing expired.  Add in Reclaim’s super-responsive customer service and it really was a no-brainer for me.

In keeping with the #ProjectReclaim theme, I would be remiss if I did not mention the variety of self-hosted apps you can auto-install directly through Installatron.  Beside the usual suspects (WordPress, Drupal, MediaWiki) there are a ton of apps set up for 1-click install: blogging platforms to CMSs to bulletin boards to RSS and bookmarking apps, e-commerce, photo galleries… and not just one of each kind of app, either – most types of apps have several different specific applications to choose from.  Reclaim’s app repository absolutely blows my previous Big Name Webhost’s list clean out of the water.  It’s fun for me to play with some of these just as an individual user, but with Reclaim’s app selection, one could very realistically set up a self-hosted online portal for students and/or staff quite easily.

I can probably count on one hand (ok, maybe two) the number of posts I’ve written on this blog endorsing specific products or services in the last eight years, but my experience with Reclaim has been so positive that I felt I needed to give them a shout-out.  If you’re looking to make the move to self-hosting your blog or website, or even if you’re an old hand but are looking to support a business that supports education, I urge you to give Reclaim Hosting a look. 

Wishing You a Productive New Year

Every so often I like to write about how I work and the tools I use to make my workflow as efficient and effective as possible.  Vicki Davis’ recent post about the productivity apps she likes got me thinking about what has changed in my own workflow since my last writing, as well as what has stayed the same.

The Mainstays: Evernote & Google Apps

I’ve been a loyal (read: paying) Evernote user since January 2009 and have seen the service explode in popularity since then.  I did my first writeup on this blog about Evernote shortly thereafter, and while the layout and bells and whistles have changed since then, the core functionality that keeps me gladly shelling out $45 every year for the service remains the same: my text notes and files are synchronized across and accessible from all my devices – my Android tablet and phone, my personal desktop and laptop, and my work laptop.  Any information I store there is accessible (and easily searchable in both raw text and files, thanks to Optical Character Recognition) to me at a moment’s notice.  I’ve lost count of how many times I have been asked a question at work and my response is, “Hang on; I’ve got it here on my phone.”  I use Evernote for both professional and personal note-taking and file storage, and there’s even a section of my dissertation devoted to how it is not only appropriate but also desirable to use a program like Evernote for storing research data.

Google Apps is another productivity tool I use daily, at work and at home.  Google Calendar helps my family to keep all our various appointments and obligations straight at home, while at work our Child Study Team uses a shared calendar to schedule IEP and other meetings without overlapping each other or double-booking staff members.  I don’t use Google Docs/Drive all that much at home, but at work it is absolutely invaluable for sharing and collaborating on documents with colleagues.  Of course, the fact that these services (including Gmail) are all easily accessible from multiple locations, including my phone and tablet, make them worth their weight in gold, or bad cliches.

The Newcomers: ToodleDo & Copy

Last time I did one of these writeups, Remember the Milk was my online to-do list of choice.  I don’t quite remember why I stopped using the service, but I was paying the $25 annual fee for a very robust service that, quite frankly, I didn’t really need.  ToodleDo provides much of the same basic functionality for free – multiple lists (Work, Home, etc.), due dates, notes for each individual task, etc.  As much as ToodleDo is more basic than RTM, I still don’t even use all that ToodleDo has to offer.  While there’s no official Android app, there are a few in the Google Play store that sync with the service (my favorite is MyToodle).

Until fairly recently, Dropbox was my service of choice for syncing my documents (those not already stored in Evernote, anyway) across my laptop, desktop, and mobile devices.  I had earned a fair bit of extra storage beyond their free 2GB by referring new members and participating in events like Dropquests.  It worked very well for me for what it does, but I only had enough free storage space to sync my documents, not ALL my files, including pics, music, and some home videos.  That’s not Dropbox’s shortcoming; I acknowledge that’s my own issue in wanting more for free.  What bugged me about Dropbox is that a lot of the “free space” I was earning was now all of a sudden for a limited time only.  For example: I bought an HTC phone, and was “rewarded” with 25GB or so of free Dropbox space.  The fine print, however, states that that space expires after a period of time (one year, two years; I don’t remember).  This did not sit well with me at all – if I earn the space, give me the space to keep! – so I began looking for other alternatives.

I found a few free Dropbox alternatives that also offered a) more free space and/or b) paid plans that were cheaper than Dropbox’s plans (e.g., 4Sync, Box), but I hit paydirt when I found Copy.

Copy provides much of the same basic functionality as Dropbox (sync/storage, cloud access, shared files/folders, etc.), but their free storage capacity was significantly higher than any other plan.  Right now Copy and 4Sync both offer 15GB of free sync/storage, but with Copy you can earn 5GB (yes, GIGA) per referral.  Compare that to Dropbox’s 500MB per referral on free accounts.  Sign up for Copy via someone else’s referral link (<–like mine) and you get an additional 5GB of free space for a total of 20GB.  There’s even an option to auto-tweet from the Copy service for an additional 2GB (you can always unlink your account afterward and keep the storage space).

As of this date, Copy has not limited the amount of free space one can earn via the referral program.  There are reports floating around the web that some users have earned terabytes of free space; I’ve earned nearly 200GB myself (but I could always use more!), which has been enough to let me store all my documents, photos, videos, and music in one central location, always accessible.

A recurring theme, if you haven’t noticed, is my ability to access all these tools on the move.  Despite having an office, I don’t actually spend a ton of time in it, so being able to whip out my phone and look up something in Evernote or consult my team’s calendar wherever I am is a luxury that I’m starting to treat as a necessity, for better or for worse.  I can see what needs to be done today and access files maybe I didn’t expect to need as long as I have an Internet connection.

Beyond the easy accessibility from multiple devices, the ability to input from multiple devices is just as important.  While it’s nothing to add something to my to-do list from my phone, I much prefer a laptop or desktop for longer typing tasks.  My vision is still good enough (for now) that I can read fine on small screens, but it would take me forever to type out on a phone what would take me 5-10 minutes to type on a traditional keyboard.

My point in writing this piece is not to get into a “this service is better than that service” tit-for-tat, and while it’s tech-centric, the moral of the story is not about online services, either (I carry a notepad and pen with me at all times and use them daily, too).  Rather, it’s about access: having access to multiple tools for multiple needs in multiple contexts and situations is what allows me to work as efficiently as I can.

As an adult, I am lucky to have the autonomy to make those decisions for myself.  In this new year, and each year beyond, I ask that you deliberately consider the choices you make for your own productivity, and what opportunities you give your students for similar decision-making.  I would love to see more and more students given (as if it is ours to give) the opportunity to use a variety of tools – whether it is paperbacks or e-books, keyboards or dictation software, notepads or cellphones – in order to help them to manage their own workflow, and, by extension, take more ownership over their learning.

Use Android 4.3 Owner Info to Recover a Lost Nexus 7

To celebrate my blog’s sixth birthday I thought I’d go back to my (ed)tech blogging roots and do a quick write-up on my new toy, Google’s updated Nexus 7 tablet.

One of the changes Google brought to Android 4.3 is the “Owner Info” option, which allows you to insert text that appears on the lock screen.  For as often as I travel with my electronics, I thought I’d use that to put my contact information and a reward offer front and center on the lock screen in case I ever lose my tablet.

I’m doing this with my new Nexus 7, but I’m guessing this would work for any device running Android 4.3.  It’s a simple process:

First, go to Settings > Security and look for the “Owner Info” option:

N7 Screen 1

Select “Owner Info”, check “Show owner info on lock screen”, and type in your message.  Mine’s simple; it just reads, “If found, contact (my phone number) for reward.”  You could also put a Twitter handle or your email address; if you run your own domain and are feeling really fancy, you could set up a custom email address for this sort of thing (e.g.,

N7 Screen 2

Exit out of Settings and lock your tablet.  When you wake it back up, you should see your custom message in the middle of the screen:

N7 Screen 3

My tablet is also locked with a PIN.  Anyone who finds my misplaced tablet is not going to be able to use it, so they have two realistic options: get in touch with me to collect a reward, or leave the tablet where it is.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Of course, the preferred scenario is that I don’t lose my tablet in the first place, but if I do, I’m hopeful this will provide enough incentive for whoever recovers it to get it back to me.



Why I Love My Kindle (and Your Students Might, Too)

For my birthday/Father’s Day gift this year, my wife and kids got me the newest non-tablet model of the Amazon Kindle, the Paperwhite.  I’ve already read several books on it in the month plus I’ve had it, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the device and discussing what it can and can’t do.

Dedicated e-Reader vs. Tablet

While I considered getting a tablet that could function not only as an e-reader but also as a web browser, gaming device, media player, etc., I went with my little monochrome Paperwhite precisely because its primary function is to display books and magazines, and I’ll only be using it for books anyway.  The lack of a modern, speedy web browser or social networking apps is actually a good thing for me, as it will prevent me from saying, “Oh, I’ll just click over to Facebook and see what’s up” and then two hours later…

My phone and computer do voice, Internet, and productivity stuff, my iPod does music, and my Kindle will do books.  I’m comfortable with that level of compartmentalization.  It’s the new old-fashioned way.

Why I Like My Kindle

  • Ergonomics: My Kindle is a good fit for my hand.  Without the case, the device measures 6.7″ x 4.6″, so it’s bigger than a smartphone but smaller than most tablets.  I can hold it in my right hand and tap the screen with my thumb to advance the page.  Even in a case, it’s small and light (7.5 oz), and not awkward to hold.  It feels natural and comfortable.
  • Hypertext-ish: It’s not hypertext in the strictest sense, but you can highlight any word in any e-book and pull up a definition from the Kindle’s on-board dictionary.  If you can’t get what you want from the dictionary, choosing the “More” option allows you to pull up the Wikipedia entry for your highlighted term, as well as to search for it in your other e-books or in the entire Kindle store.
  • Social Functionality: I love, love, love being able to highlight a controversial, inspiring, or otherwise interesting passage on the Kindle and share it out to my Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
  • Portability: I took twenty books with me on my recent vacation to Antigua.  Before my Kindle, that would’ve been a checked bag unto itself, but I was able to slip them all into the cargo pocket of my shorts.
  • Customization: From an accessibility standpoint, the size of the text and brightness of the screen can be adjusted.  There’s no such thing as “regular print” or “large print” anymore; the text of every book can be made as large or as small as I’m comfortable with.
  • Access to Public Domain Works: My Kindle (as well as any e-reader, to be fair) allows me to access hundreds of literary works in the public domain for free via Project Gutenberg.  These works are all available through traditional retailers for a price, but why pay when it’s legal to obtain them for free?

I fully acknowledge that not every technological tool I enjoy on a personal level has applications in the classroom; however, just off the top of my head, here are some ways I can see Kindles being beneficial in school – not as students’ sole devices, but rather as part of their toolbelt:

Potential Benefits for Students

  • Research/Note-Taking: With a few finger swipes, passages and references are “clipped” and backed up to one central location (your Amazon account) for later perusing, either on the Kindle or on the Amazon website.  Could be helpful with organization.
  • Access to Classic Novels: Many of the 18th-, 19th-, and some early 20th-century works students study in high school literature courses can be found for free at Project Gutenberg.  I just downloaded the complete works of both Poe and Shakespeare; I also saw, in passing, Kafka, Dickens, Voltaire, Chaucer, Dante, Fitzgerald, Whitman, and many other canonical heavy hitters.
  • Portability: Aside from the convenience factor for the general population, some students are physically incapable of lugging multiple textbooks around.  One Kindle can likely fit every textbook and novel a student might need throughout four years of high school.
  • Built-In Dictionary/Wikipedia Access: One long press answers the question “What does this word mean?”  Another click or two enables readers to do cursory research on allusions and references made in-text in order to better understand what they’re reading.  I don’t believe any research has been done yet as far as Kindles/e-readers and their impact on fluency, literacy, etc., but I think it would be a very worthwhile undertaking.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Cost to Replace/Repair: Novels can be replaced for a few bucks.
  • Ties to Amazon Ecosystem: I suppose it’s the price to pay for the note-taking functionality.  It can read e-books from any source, but it does tie users in to Amazon accounts, which would expose students to advertising if/when on the website.
  • ???: I’m kind of stuck, honestly.  I’m having difficulty thinking of any other major drawbacks.

Do you use Kindles or other e-readers with your students?  What have your classroom experiences – good or bad – been with students using these devices?

My Go Bag

Although I am a building-based school psychologist (which means I rarely leave my one building for work-related purposes), my recent forays into Edcamp organization, consulting, presenting, and grad school have me learning and working on the road more than ever before.  While I’m on the move at school, I can do a lot with just my mobile phone, a pad, and pen, but traveling further afield requires more firepower than I can fit in my pockets.  After many trials and more than a few errors, I think I’ve put together a “go bag” that ought to cover me in most circumstances.

The Bag

After some hunting around, I settled on the Timbuk2 Command Laptop Messenger Bag.  It’s billed as “TSA-friendly” due to the zip release that allows the bag (actually a very tight clamshell design – hard to describe; hit up the link for pics) to split open and lay completely flat for airport X-ray machines.  This is apparently a big deal for people who travel with more than one device (e.g., tablet and laptop).  I didn’t get it for this feature, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I need it.

Of greater concern to me was the bag’s build quality.  I’ve had too many broken straps, holey compartments, and torn zippers on past bags, so all the reviews I read espousing the quality of Timbuk2 products definitely influenced me to shell out a little more for a bag that seems like it will last (the lifetime guarantee helped my decision-making process as well).

From a capacity standpoint, this bag looks and feels compact, but functions very much like a real-life bag of holding.  Seriously, I have a hard time filling this thing, and it’s not for lack of trying.  The laptop actually goes in a slim foam padded compartment on the rear of the bag, and the laptop charger brick fits into a compartment on the bottom of the bag, leaving the main compartment free to hold other items.  There are pockets and zippers galore on this thing, but one feature I especially appreciate is the main flap closure – the flap is anchored by two aluminum hooks instead of velcro.  That’s a very welcome feature for the guy who rolls into grad class 15 minutes late every week and would like to avoid the very conspicuous rrrrrrrrrip of velcro that further disturbs the class.


I purchased a Grid-It organizer to keep my cables corralled in my bag.  Micro/mini USB, Ethernet, etc. – these are all cables I’ve found myself needing (and not having) at some point in the past few years, so I thought it would be good to warehouse some spares.  The Grid-It keeps everything in one place and frees up the pockets and compartments for pens, notepads, Swiss Army knife, and other assorted handy items.

I tend to keep all my work accessible via services like Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive, but I keep a handful of USB drives in my bag mainly for emergency data transfer, but also to give away as needed.  I get so many for free at various functions that I thought this would be a better use for them than sitting in a desk drawer collecting dust.

Table of Contents

Here’s a complete list of everything I’ve managed to stuff into this bag.  Amazingly enough, the Command accommodates it all very well and doesn’t feel bulky or awkward at all.  In addition to the basics (laptop, charger, phone, & iPod), this is what comes with me on my journeys:

  • Grid-It Organizer
    • Micro USB cables
    • Mini USB cables
    • iPod cable
    • 4-port USB charger
    • Ethernet cable
  • Targus power strip
  • Earphones
  • USB thumb drives
  • Notepad
  • Pens
  • Sharpie
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Caffeine pills (I hate coffee)
  • Migraine pills (I hate headaches, too)
  • Spare wallet with consultant ID, emergency credit card, & dollar bills for vending machines

Do you keep a “go bag”, or do you have any must-have gadgets, cables, or thingamabobs I should add to my list of essentials?  Let me know in the comments.