Category Archives: tech tools

Product vs. Process

Do you know who these two guys are?Norm Abram and Roy Underhill


The man on the left is Norm Abram, host of PBS’ “The New Yankee Workshop” and “This Old House“.  Norm is a master carpenter.  Norm also has a penchant for using a wide range of common and exotic power tools to create masterpieces.  It is not unusual to see him use a variety of tools, bits, and jigs in his projects.

The man on the right is Roy Underhill, host of PBS’ “The Woodwright’s Shop“.   Roy is a master housewright.  Roy focuses his efforts on time-tested, traditional woodworking methods.  Roy uses no power tools at all, sticking to hand tools and human-powered machines.

If I offered you a piece of furniture that had been made by one of these two master craftsmen, would you care which one made it before accepting it?


Neither would I.  And that’s the beauty of how technology should work in education.  When “use of technology” is seen as the product of our educational efforts, we get unnecessarily distracted from what the real goal should be.  When “use of technology” is part of the learning process, then we are better able to decide when and where it makes the most sense, to support what we are truly trying to accomplish.

For example, “creating a Google Slides presentation” shouldn’t be the goal.  “Deliver a presentation to convince an audience to fund your project” is a much better goal – and if the student can use Google Slides to support that work, so much the better.

Technology can help us do some things faster.  Technology can help us do some things easier.  Technology can help us do some things better.  But, technology should not be the “end game”.

When you consider infusing technology into your instruction, do it for one of the following reasons: 1) technology makes a task possible that wasn’t possible otherwise, or  2) technology makes the task more engaging and results in a better product.   Anything else is just a distraction from the real end product.

It’s an old axiom in marketing: “When you buy a drill, you don’t really want a drill.  You want a hole.”  A great drill can help you make an exceptional hole, much faster and more accurately than a hand-drill would.  But, a great drill is not the goal.

When you start with a great real-world authentic learning goal, infusing technology to support that goal stands far less chance of being a roadblock to real learning!


Try Eyegaze on Windows!

Have you ever wanted to type on your Windows computer without using your hands or your voice?  A growing number of people are controlling the computer using little more than small head movements.  This technology, commonly referred to as “Eyegaze,” benefits users with motor issues that prevent them from operating a computer in ways that are considered basic to many people.  Such users may include those with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Cerebral Palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy.

In its early days, eyegaze technology was incredibly expensive.  The only way most people who could most benefit from this technology could acquire it was by participating in medical or therapeutic studies where the cost of the technology was covered.

Now, you can download an eyegaze interface program to your Windows computer for free.  Actually, Camera Mouse is nearing its 10th anniversary as a freely available program, thanks to the people at Boston College.  When paired with on-screen keyboard software, everything that you could do with the keyboard and mouse can be done with your computer’s webcam, just by moving your head.

So, where can you get on-screen keyboard software?  In Windows, you already have it.  The one that comes with Windows is perfectly adequate.  In fact, the on-screen keyboard built-in to Windows 10 includes word prediction capability.  This can make eyegaze typing significantly faster.  Eyegaze typing typically works by registering a “click” after the mouse cursor stays in the same space for a set period of time (“dwell time”).

Simpler on-screen keyboard software is also available.  Two programs that are designed to work well with Camera Mouse and incorporate a text-to-speech option are Midas Touch and Staggered Speech.

I am typing this sentence using eyegaze and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard.

Yes, it’s slow.  That sentence took me over one minute to type.  But for a person who cannot use a standard keyboard or speech-to-text technology, typing a sentence in 60 seconds is a gateway to a fundamental communication option that opens up meaningful participation in the world.  Once a user gets more practice with eyegaze technology, they generally will want the “dwell time” reduced from one or two seconds to a half-second or less.  If I were to practice, and tweak the software settings, I could soon get to a point where I can reproduce that sentence in under a minute.

And, thanks to the technology, if I store a commonly-used sentence in a memory bank, I can reproduce the sentence in far less time than it would take me to type it conventionally, with my 55wpm fingers.

So, why would you want to use Camera Mouse and the Windows on-screen keyboard?  Here are three great reasons!

  1. The Lure of the Gadget – Some people avoid unfamiliar technology because of a fear of it not doing what is expected.  Some people, on the other hand, just can’t resist trying a technology just to see what it does.  If you’re the type who has a natural curiosity for technological wizardry, eyegaze is a super-cool interface to try out!  Camera Mouse doesn’t disable your built-in keyboard and mouse, so any time you need to bail out and shut off the eyegaze tracker, you can do so easily.
  2. Contribute to advancement – Eyegaze technology – and other assistive technologies – continue to get better because of the feedback developers get from users who try their software and give them feedback.  Most advancements in software design and capability started with a user who said, “Y’know, it would be great if this could….”
  3. Build Empathy – If you ever encounter a person who relies on such technology, you will have first-hand experience with what they deal with – both the struggle and the possibilities.  Also, should you happen to work with an individual who has difficulty using typical computer interface controls (e.g., keyboard and mouse), you can more effectively introduce and support the use of eyegaze technology for that individual.  Supplementary or alternative interfaces such as eyegaze give people with significant motor impairments a way to use computers to do many things that typical people take for granted.

For the college course I am teaching, I plan to have each of my students take a turn at using Camera Mouse and an on-screen keyboard to type a sentence.  I will not be grading them on how fast they type the sentence.  I will not be grading them on how few mistakes there are.  I don’t even care (much) if they remember the name of the program we will use or if they practice and get better at it.  My goal is for them to build empathy for the kids they will one day work with who either rely on eyegaze technology to effectively communicate, or who could significantly benefit from such technology.  When the rest of the group is in a typing class, there is no good reason why a student who does not have the physical capacity to type on a standard keyboard should be given some alternate activity that has nothing to do with typing.

But, making that a reality in our schools will require the efforts of educators who demand equity and excellence for every student, regardless of any disability label they’ve been given.


Using to Create a Shortened URL

After a recent set of workshops with teachers at Minford Local School District (Go Falcons!), one of the participants asked me for a quick tutorial on how to use to create a shortened URL.

So, I used the Screencastify extension to create a quick video to show how I do it!

Using to create a short URL

Thanks for the question, Lori! I hope the video is helpful!

Update: 2:32pm 1/21/2016, captioning should be available now for this video.


Some of my favorite people in education work at OCALI (Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence).  Before I ever had a child of my own diagnosed with Autism, my work took me to OCALI on many occasions.  I have always had a great time working with the people there.

OCALICON 2015.Their flagship event every year is the national OCALICON in Columbus, Ohio.  This year, I will have the privilege of being at OCALICON for two presentations:

If you’re at OCALICON this year, say hi!

Tech Tools to Support the Five-Step Writing Process – INFOhio Webinar

INFOhioOn Thursday, November 12, from 3:30-4:30, I presented “Tech Tools to Support the Five-Step Writing Process” via webinar for the fine folks at INFOhio!

Check out a Voki intro of the session!

This webinar will highlight a few free tools you can use to support the Five-Step Writing Process (Pre-write, Write, Revise, Edit, and Publish) for students with diverse needs!

The webinar was recorded, so you can still view it.  And, if you answer five simple true-false questions after viewing the webinar, you can download a certificate and/or get a cool badge like this one!

Saving a Publisher file as a PDF

I have never been a big fan of Microsoft Publisher.  Too many quirky behaviors for my taste.  I spend more of my time figuring out workarounds than actually designing a quality product.

Not that graphic design and layout are particular strengths of mine.

Anyway, I was recently having a big problem with producing a PDF using Publisher 2010.  I had quite a few links in the document, so using my print-to-pdf option wasn’t going to cut it.  No problem, just use the built-in Save As PDF feature, right?


Save as PDF maintained the links in the Publisher document, but it did something very strange.  It changed the font color from a very particular color of green from a branding guide to plain black.

The solution came from a quick Google search.

The problem was apparently that there is a color printer installed on my computer, but a black-and-white printer is my default printer.  When I changed my default printer to a color printer, and then tried Publisher’s Save As PDF routine again, the font colors came out just as I expected.

Strange.  But workarounds are kinda par for the course for Publisher.

I can hardly wait to get the whole “department newsletter” idea converted into a blog.  I’ll gladly give up working with Publisher ever again!

Thanks to this Microsoft Community post for cluing me in to where the problem was.

The Ten Best Technology Movies of All Time

Some movies rely heavily on some aspect of technology (and its development, and the ramifications when things go awry) to advance their plot.  These are my ten favorite tech films of all time!

10) The Fly (1958) – Teleporters would be awesome, right? What Movie poster for The Fly, 1958.could possibly go wrong? The original 1958 classic does a great job of staying on the edge of “plausible deniability” in scaring the bejabbers out of the viewer! I didn’t think the Jeff Goldblum / Geena Davis remake was terrible.  In some ways, it was definitely better than the original.  For this list, I have to go with the 1958 version because the ending is so much better.  “Help me! Please, help meeee!”

9) WALL-E (2008) – Yes, I have kids.  Yes, I watch Disney movies. Wall-E character Occasionally, I even watch one when the kids aren’t around (Mary Poppins is still one of my all-time favorites).  This one took a movie plot that is generally only reserved for trying to unsettle adult audiences, and made it accessible and fun for all ages.  It still provokes the question of “what would happen if all the people were gone”, but without the cataclysmic darkness that puts most films like this into the “after the kids go to bed” time slot.

8)  Apollo 13 (1995) – When the original mission (landing on the Scene from Apollo 13.moon) of the Apollo 13 crew has to be scrubbed, a new mission takes its place (saving the astronauts’ lives as they return to Earth).  Can you design something to rescue three imperiled astronauts using things like the flight plan cover, duct tape, and socks, before the CO2 levels in the capsule overtake them? How did it actually work?

7) The Terminator (1984) – C’mon.  It’s The Terminator.  Do you really need to know any more?

6) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Why did this make my list?

Ferris Bueller sitting in front of his monochrome amber monitor.
“I asked for a car. I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?”

The whole thing couldn’t have been possible without Ferris using a room full of outrageously geeky (for its time) technology to hack the house intercom system, provide medical sound effects, and even hack into the school computer system to eliminate an overabundance of absences.  All that, and he couldn’t figure out how to make the odometer go backwards on a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder?

5) Office Space (1999) – The premise of the central plot element in Office workers ready to destroy the laser printer.this movie makes you think, “Well, yeah, what DOES happen to the fraction of a cent that gets dropped off of all those financial transactions?”  The rest of the movie is built on the positive and negative interactions between the personalities of the characters, but the thoroughly believable idea of siphoning minuscule amounts of money to create a multi-million dollar bank account, and sticking it to the man, practically dares us not to identify with the cubicle dwellers getting screwed at every turn.  And who hasn’t wanted to hand out a little street justice by curb-stomping a laser printer that spouted “PC LOAD LETTER” just once too often?

4) Minority Report (2002) – Smart move, setting this movie just far

Spatial Operating Interface from the movie Minority Report.
Admit it, you want a pair of these gloves.

enough into the future that I can imagine myself being still alive should the world turn into something like this.  A blend of humans with special abilities (“Precogs”) and technology has allowed law enforcement to detect when someone is going to commit a crime.  Using this technology, they preempt the crimes from occurring and arrest the would-be perpetrator just as if they had committed the crime.  We were awed by the “spatial operating environment interface” that John Anderton used when he slipped on the special gloves.  Little did we know that only a few years later, multi-touch surfaces and devices like the Xbox Kinect would make those science fiction morsels become a tasty reality long before 2054!

3) Tron (1982) – We didn’t even know what a “hacker” was in 1982,

Action figures from the original movie
I had these when I was a kid. So cool!

but the concept of getting trapped inside a virtual video game world was fertile ground for Disney’s second entry in my list.  See, kids, back in the 80s, we had to go to a mall to a place called an “arcade” to play video games.  And the guy who ran the arcade had the coolest job in the world.  There is a bit of cognitive dissonance that still goes on in my head – I refuse to believe that the Jeff Bridges from this movie is the same Jeff Bridges from any of his other movies.  Nuh-uh, no way, nohow.

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.2) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick just has a way of making “poison ivy” movies.  They get under your skin and itch until you have to scratch it, and it just makes the itch worse.  “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

1) WarGames (1983) – Matthew Broderick makes another appearance on my list, this time with the quintessential tech-based

You can’t read it without hearing it in the computer voice, can you?

movie of all time.  When you’re working on a text-based terminal, how do you know what’s “real”, and what’s just a construct of artificial intelligence? I was already a burgeoning computer nerd at the time, having written my own Casino and Horse Racing programs in Applesoft Basic on a VTech Laser 128 during a snowstorm-lengthened winter break from school, and this movie put dreams in my head of one day doing things with a computer that would go beyond my own house. “Shall we play a game?”

Obviously, I’ve chosen several movies that bridge a gap between implementing technology (“can we do it?”) and philosophy (“should we do it?”), which has long provided a foundational element for plots in movies, literature, etc.  What movies did I miss that I should have included?  Which one of these movies doesn’t deserve to be in the list? Go ahead, have at it!