FETC 2013: Driving, Flying, Speaking, Learning

FETC logo

I spoke here. And it was cool.

Pounding rain had already turned the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway into a treacherous, car-packed Slip-n-Slide by the time I got on the road at around 4:30am, and my broken windshield wipers made the drive a surreal, terrifying journey. Six hours later, I was sitting on a beach chair on the upper deck of the Orange County Convention Center’s Building 1 soaking in the sun, talking to like-minded educators, and wishing I could stay in Orlando until February break (at minimum). FETC is like the older, bigger cousin of most other conferences I’ve attended, and it takes place in a city that made Brooklyn in the winter seem that much more grim upon my return. While I was de-boarding, I sent my last tweet about the conference, and it made me realize something pretty remarkable as I pushed my way through LaGuardia Airport: FETC was the most “connected” conference I’ve ever attended. Despite its intimidating size and breadth, Florida’s biggest ed tech event kept its attendees wired and in touch at every turn.

ImageI was lucky enough to speak to a crowded room about a topic near and dear to me: 1:1 mobile device deployments. My particular line of work has led me to a number of really interesting places (coming soon to SXSW Edu 2013!), and I feel like I could easily fill four hours rather than forty minutes (though my audience might strenuously disagree). I discussed cloud classrooms and the role Edmodo has had in our iPad deployment, and I spent nearly an hour after my presentation meeting with members of the audience, answering questions and providing whatever information I could to school leaders interested in ubiquitous classroom computing. I tweeted during my spiel and openly solicited new members of my Edmodo group. “It infuriates my co-workers when I get some crazy new badge, and I’m assuming one is coming if I get enough group members,” I helpfully explained.

Exhibition Hall

“Where is my mind? Where is my mind? Wheeeeeere is my mind? In the water, see it swimming…”

I was able to check out several other presentations during my time there, and anything I missed I was able to catch up on via Twitter. The best quotes from each presentation were being shared by dozens of active tweeters, so I was able to keep up with the action happening around me even as I spoke at my own presentation. The #FETC hashtag was alive with hundreds of attendees sharing thoughts, offering critiques, and participating in backchannels on a whole host of education technology topics. As a presenter, I was also able to share my materials using Edmodo, and that made life easier when members of the audience asked me to email them slides or wanted to take a look at my sources.

Me

“What’s going on? Why is my face warm? What is this ‘breeze’ you speak of?”

The FETC experience was well worth the trip, and I eagerly anticipate attending with no speaking agenda next year. I walked away impressed with everything about the conference, but I think what impressed me most was how much technology has reshaped these events into collaborative, interactive experiences. We’re no longer limited to engaging with what’s in front of us; now, we can communicate with like-minded people without ever being in the same room, and we can share the best of what we experience with thousands of people with a few clicks. While I spoke, I could hear my iPhone alert me to Edmodo notifications, which told me that a few people followed through on my plaintive group joining request. I was connecting in the moment with the people in front me, and there are myriad ways we can and have stayed connected. And I’m willing to bet FETC is one of a coming tidal wave of conferences that will keep its participants engaged long after the last speech is delivered.

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Cloud storage smackdown

menu bar overload

A few days ago, a good friend (@jamesbasile820) and I were discussing the best way to share files among students and faculty members that doesn’t involve expensive, maintenance-intensive on site servers. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with a variety of storage solutions given the nature of my job, so I decided it was time to put the most popular free cloud storage to the test. Keep in mind that FREE is the key word here: this is a review of cloud storage and file sharing for individuals and small groups, not paid storage or redundancy solutions for entire districts.

I work at an iPad 1:1 school, so my allegiance to all things iOS effects my rankings. Every site/app has been tested on a MacBook, iPad with Retina Display, and iPhone. A few were even tested on an HTC Evo 4G (yes, it’s old) and an iPad Mini (which I fell deeply in love with…but that’s another post). I’m also fortunate enough to teach at St. Francis College in a one-to-one iMac classroom, so I’ve been able to make use of these services in more than one environment.

I’m going to count down from five, with a few honorable mentions thrown into the mix. I think all of these sites and apps provide an incredible free service, so you won’t find a negative review in the bunch. Each service will be rated on six categories: interface, usability, sharing, features, and drawbacks (which is rated from zero to negative five). The highest possible score is 25.

Many of these services offer free space for achieving certain levels of usage, sending referrals, etc. This discussion centers around the amount of storage you can expect to start out with, not the amount of space you get if you shill to thirty friends every couple of days. I hate doing that stuff and I assume I’m not alone.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Please share your choices in the comments or via Twitter (@fogarty22).

If you’re not up for 5000+ words on cloud storage, here’s a chart:

A comparison chart of cloud storage services

A screenshot of Mega

5. (tie) Mega – Say what you will about Kim Dotcom, he’s providing users with FIFTY GIGS of free storage, which is completely ridiculous. The only reason MegaUpload’s successor isn’t higher in the rankings is because it presently lacks apps for any platform. It’s also kind of irritating to constantly be lectured about using Chrome. I use Safari. Stop yelling at me.

Oh, and see the picture below? Get used to it.

Mega.co.nz

Interface: 3. The website is easy to use, but it hasn’t been very stable since the day of the absolutely bananas launch party (here you go!). There aren’t any apps to speak of, so there’s only one way to do things: through a bland browser interface. Mega supports bulk uploading, but only via Chrome (Mega REALLY wants you to use Chrome). I understand and appreciate the fact that Chrome supports HTML5 better than many of its brethren, but are people going to switch browsers just for your service? Speaking as someone who averages a browser swap every three years, I say the answer is no. And if you’re asking me to run two browsers simultaneously, I’m asking you to figure out a better way for me to use your site.

Usability: 2. The site works fine on a desktop or laptop, but you’re limited to uploading pictures via the iPad (and you’ll have to download Chrome). The lack of app support means Mega won’t be accessing any APIs in the near future, so you won’t be opening or editing files in other apps. In other words, if you lose your password, you lose your files (I’ve been told that this changed very recently, but the site is down so I can’t confirm). Heavyweight encryption is great, but most of us aren’t storing the Pentagon Papers in our cloud folders. Your pictures of cats will probably be fine no matter which service you utilize. On the other hand, if you’re Julian Assange, I think I’ve found the cloud storage solution you’ve been dreaming about.

Sharing: 3. Again, Mega offers a basic suite of options, and there’s really nothing notable about how they allow you to send links to others. You’re files get sandboxed in their site (as is the case with most of these apps and services); you won’t be able to send direct links. Instead, the recipient of your link will have to open the file you are sharing by clicking a link that will launch Mega’s web file interface. A common requirement (and one shared by every service on the list), but one I absolutely loathe, as it makes a lot of simple stuff much more difficult.

Features: 1. I would call 50GB of free storage pretty special (and it’s certainly a feature). Unfortunately in most other respects, this is as bare bones as cloud storage gets. Encryption and anonymity are the other major selling points of Mega, but again, I’m not trying to share Die Hard 9 with a gaggle of college frosh pseudo-pirates. I see the value of Mega’s cryptographic key system, which gives the user total control of how his/her students or peers access shared files, so I tacked on a point for that.

Drawbacks: -1. Signing up for a Mega account is sort of like marrying a gangster. Sure, the perks are amazing, and maybe a few of your friends look at what you have with envy…but at the end of the day, do you feel totally safe? Are you prepared to be Karen to Mega’s Henry Hill? More to the point, do you want to be the one who makes your students aware of this type of anonymous file sharing? Using storage provided by Kim Dotcom might make you (or your students’ parents) uncomfortable, given the wanton piracy his previous web venture enabled and encouraged. I’m more offended by the lack of apps than anything else.

Free space: 6. Out of 5. Did I mention the 50 free GB? Mega is offering more storage than all these other sites combined.

Verdict: 14/25.

Why not use this as a back up for your back ups? Unlike many of the competing services, Mega allows you to upload any size files you like. I’m able to store dozens of student films there without a problem. The visuals are drab and the interface will never be accused of being fun, but it provides a heck of a lot of space for free, and if you become a world class bootlegger (the movies and music kind, not the Arnold Rothstein kind), the encryption is there to shield your daring exploits from prying eyes. NOTE: please don’t become a world class bootlegger.

Google Drive

5. (tie) Google Drive – How do I express this delicately?

Google Drive has a great personality. It’s a fantastic tool for storage and collaboration, and the fact that it comes built to work with Google’s arsenal of productivity tools means you’ll find innumerable ways to use it. Versatility is its biggest strength.

Interface: 0. But is it ever ugly. Dreadfully ugly. Like the designers had been locked in a basement poring over Excel 3.0 spreadsheets since 1991. I’m sure Google pays hundreds of people much more than I will ever make to ensure that their products are aesthetically appealing. I have a suggestion: fire them all. Let them go, herd them onto the brightly colored, whimsically outfitted Google Canoe-gle, and set sail for the Island of Misfit Devs. The visual components of Google services seem inspired by Microsoft’s Office suite’s aesthetic nadir, and their color choices are based quite explicitly on my twenty month old daughter’s toy collection. Google’s design team might exist in a bizarro universe like the pig-faced doctors and nurses in the Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder”.

I feel better getting that off my chest. There is some good news: Google (like most of its competitors) provides you with a Drive folder easily accessible from a Finder window and your menu bar. It’s easy to upload multiple files, but sending a link to an actual file location is impossible (well, possible with a lot of tweaking, but impossible for the average user).

Usability: 3. like all things Google, it’s usable but not enjoyable. While that may seem like a strong indictment, I don’t think most of these choices are a lot of fun. A few, like SkyDrive and Box, aspire to be more than a folder in Finder, and Google Drive might be one of the aspirants. Its present iteration just falls woefully short of that goal.

Google Drive app

The iOS app is fine. It’s got a simple navigation bar on the left (My Drive, Shared with me, Starred, Recent), and a list of files in the selected folder dominates the remaining space. Files have to be open to view, as there is no preview feature. The app is also not at all intuitive. You have to click on a file’s link to see it, but once you do so you have to close the viewer in order to share, edit, or move it. It’s not a good system, especially when you compare it to SkyDrive or Box’s apps, both of which allow you to work with a file once you preview it.

Sharing: 4. Google Drive’s permissions management allows for some sophisticated document management (like allowing editors to add additional collaborators). Built-in sharing options are limited to Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, and Google+. The ability to send direct links with a few tweaks tacked another point onto Drive’s score, but check out the instructions I found in a link on the Google Drive forum: http://yaitguy.blogspot.ie/2012/08/direct-link-to-shared-google-drive-file.html.

That encapsulates what I mean by “usable, not enjoyable”.

Special features: 4. Google Drive may not have the appealing visuals or advanced sharing options of some of its competition, but it is relatively simple and comes packed with extras. You can store, edit, duplicate, and share out of Google Drive without any stress. You can repurpose your files into blog posts, your images into webpage backgrounds, and your audio files into podcasts ripped to Feedburner, all with a few clicks.

Drawbacks: 0. There isn’t much wrong with Google Drive that a makeover wouldn’t fix. But there is something wrong with Google as entity that colors my opinion: I’m uncomfortable with how my personal information is used by the “Don’t Be Evil” guys, which means I’m MUCH less comfortable with how they might use my students’ data. If that stuff doesn’t bother you and you’re colorblind, you might fall in love with Google Drive.

Free space: A solid 3 on our scale. You get 5GB.

Verdict: 14/25.

Here’s how I feel about most of the stuff Google offers: if you have to go with a free service or suite of services, I get it. In that case, it makes perfect sense to rely on the most well-developed, dependable option available, consequences be damned. But if there’s any choice in the matter, I’d rather avoid the word processor apparently built using the guts of a netbook-optimized Word 97 clone, the slideshow creator with twenty preternaturally bland templates, and the program icon reminiscent of New York’s recycling logo.

Recycle New York Google Drive's logo makes me think of garbage

iCloud

Honorable Mention: iCloud – iCloud offers no sharing options, a clunky interface, and the ability to save just a handful of file formats. But it’s not really intended for collaboration, so it gets a pass here.

CX dashboard

4. CX.com – few people are aware of CX, but the folks behind the service are supporting 10 free gigs of storage with a simple web interface and a nice, compact iPad app. It’s relegated to the 4th spot because it’s damn near impossible to figure out how to sign up for free space via their website, and because the service they are offering is quite similar to what everyone else is offering. CX doesn’t seem to be competing with the single-user services on this list; it would much rather become your enterprise cloud storage solution. Nevertheless, this is a service worth checking out, featuring creditable desktop integration and an efficient iOS app. There is a great deal of untapped potential here.

Interface: 3. The website and app both feature some pretty bland design choices. The app is particularly dull, and once you click your way to My Stuff, you aren’t presented with a lot of options. While it’s nice that CX lets you comment on files, that doesn’t make up for the inability to open files in other apps without viewing the file. I do like that files you favorite can be viewed offline without any work on the user’s part, so I added a point for that. The desktop app offers a wider selection of file options than the app, as it provides a menu bar icon and Finder-accessible folder that allow the user to upload files of any size.

Usability: 3. Once I cracked the code and got my 10GB (Protip: go through the app), I was able to upload and download through the app and site with relative ease. My major issue with the site’s usability boils down to this: too many extra clicks. Once you log into the website, you’re taken to a Dashboard page instead of a file or folder GUI. The page feels extraneous for people who aren’t collaborating on anything at the moment, and a little part of me dies every time I have to needlessly navigate through extra nonsense to find my file browser. Luckily, the site supports bulk uploading and has a ridiculously simple interface, so once you click on My Stuff it’s easy to manage your files.

CX app groups

With apologies to Nina: When you offer groups but no iOS group management functions, THAT MAKES ME MAD!!!

CX’s app has my least favorite interface of the bunch. Just like the site, the app opens to reveal your Dashboard, which is not where I want to be. Select My Stuff and you get an interface not unlike Dropbox and Box, just with fewer options. If you tap a file, you are presented with sharing options, a comment field, and a view button. Tap to the right of a file and you get sharing options (which are limited) and “open in” options (even more limited). Nothing to see here, move along.

Sharing: 3. This is supposed to be CX’s strong suit, but unfortunately the site’s sharing options aren’t much better than any other offering. Sharing and groups are a priority, because as I mentioned earlier these guys want to provide an enterprise solution, not a few GB-per-user file locker. To that end, they’ve included one-click sharing through Twitter, Facebook, and email, but of course no direct linking.

Features: 2. CX.com is exactly what you expect a cloud storage service to be. It’s best feature is the 10GB, followed closely by the group sharing options. The ability to comment on files right in the file browser pane is a minor but welcome addition.

Drawbacks: -1. When you launch the app, you are presented with four options: Dashboard, My Stuff, Groups, Offline Files. Click on Groups and you’re told you have to go to cx.com to create them. That’s a bit of a hassle, and with competitors like Google offering easier mobile management options, a little thing like this could end up being a deal breaker for you or your institution. The app is good, but it’s only useful for certain tasks. Why would a one-to-one school accept having to use two devices to manage files?

Free space: 5. 10GB is quite generous.

Verdict: 15/25.

CX was the first service I tested extensively for the purpose of writing this, and based on my experience it deserves to be more widely used. This virtually unknown commodity is offering more with less fanfare than almost any other product available. It’s stuck at number 4 because the app is lackluster and despite the fact that lately, I use it more than I use Dropbox (which probably reflects the value of 10GB to a power user rather than any significant differentiation on the part of the service). The relatively basic sharing features might chase the serious user away, but for most people CX will do exactly what it’s expected to do.

Dropbox file interface

C’mon, I’m Dropbox. You already use me! I must be the best.

3. Dropbox – There’s much to love about Dropbox: it’s integrated into everything, it allows you to preview files in a floating window, and the Android and iOS apps are beyond reproach. As someone who participated in this year’s DropQuest (don’t ask), I’m definitely an enthusiastic supporter. But it wouldn’t be number three if all was well and good with Dropbox.

Interface: 5. A clean, simple design expressed brilliantly in site and app form. When you log in to the website, you’re taken to a list of your files. Your options are robust, but users with basic computer skills never have to know how much you can do from this page. It’s incredibly easy to click the Link icon to share a file through Facebook or Twitter. The file preview window accommodates all the basic file types you would expect, but as an iWork suite user, I am disappointed that Pages and Keynote files can’t be previewed. Of course hardly any of these services allow for that, so that’s not a major cause for concern. The other major benefit: like Skydrive and Google Drive, Dropbox has a useful desktop app and menu bar icon, so you can access your cloud storage just like you open files on your hard drive.

Usability: 5. It works flawlessly with other apps. If you’re working in a one-to-one computing environment, you’ll end up telling students to use Dropbox for two reasons: it’s easy and it works. Mega has its 50GB, Google Drive has its feature-rich built-in app suite, and SkyDrive has its visually striking web interface, but none of that trumps usability. And that’s where Dropbox shines. It comes as close to passing The Mom Tech Test as anything on this list.

Dropbox app

The app is also a pleasure to use. Box and Dropbox both rely on left-pane file navigation and a center preview window, and while I might find SkyDrive’s approach to file listing more visually stimulating, this is just as effective. Sharing and downloading options are available directly above the preview pane, which means less taps or clicks. Always appreciated!

Sharing: 4. Deep and relay easy to use. Twitter, Facebook, and email sharing are all one click away. (Side note: are tons of people doing collaborative work via Facebook, or is this just so people can more efficiently store and share pictures of food?). Sharing individual files or entire folders is easy as can be, but you will trap your collaborators in Dropbox’s walled garden, and direct linking is not a possibility. Sharing through the app is almost fun. Almost.

Dropbox security options

Features: 3. Finally, a plethora of security options that are actually useful to regular people! Dropbox can easily show you every computer and app with access to your files and keeps tabs on your logins. You’ll also really like the fact that so many apps seamlessly interact with Dropbox. You can send files from Dropbox to almost any other app, and many apps support saving to Dropbox including popular word processing apps like Pages and Office2 HD.

Free space: 1. Two lousy GB unless you have the time for quests, searches, and journeys to Mordor. Or you can avoid all that by using any other service on this list.

Drawbacks: -2. The purpose of this post is to direct you to the most and best space. Since Dropbox is a great service, it belongs on the list. But 2GB is not enough for most people, and I don’t want to make a game of increasing the size of my piece of the cloud. I’ve spoken to some users with 20GB of free space (@MrCasal, I’m looking at you), others with a bit more than 2GB. I’m at 4.2GB after two years as a user. The reason for the disparity? Dropbox wants you to do their marketing for them by signing up friends, tweeting about the service, and flying a small prop plane over the beach with a Dropbox banner waving confidently in the breeze. Dropbox will come to your house and beat you with soap in a sock if you don’t tell your friends about it. Dropbox will cut your power so no one will know what it did. Dropbox wants you to spread the word so more people can sign up and get less space than is available through literally every other service on this list.

Verdict: 16/25.

Does your mom want to store a few files in the cloud from her iPad? Sign her up for Dropbox. Are the students at your one-to-one iPad school relying on thumb drives? Dropbox will make an excellent replacement. Need to access a handful of files on a regular basis? Dropbox by a landslide. Way too much time on your hands and a desire to “game-ify” storage space? Dropbox (and maybe a hobby or two) FTW.

Need space? You won’t find it here (Mega is offering twenty-five TIMES the amount of space, and even Google Drive is more than doubling the paltry 2GB Dropbox provides). Want groups? Look elsewhere. Good permissions management? Not happening. Link/file commenting system? Nothing to see here. Dropbox is great for the simple stuff, but limited if your needs are more sophisticated than the average person.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Honorable mention: Amazon Cloud Drive – Amazon offers 5GB absolutely free and provides a desktop app, but it’s relegated to the honorable mentions for two reasons: no iOS app and no file structure integration. In order to view your files, you can click the little cloud icon in your menu bar, but all that allows you to do is launch the Amazon Cloud Drive web interface. So why bother with the menu bar icon at all? There is one thing Amazon gets right that nothing else does: context menu integration. Right clicking or two-finger tapping any file As presently constituted, Amazon Cloud Drive can’t complete with the best of what’s already out there.

2. Box – Box was the first cloud storage site to count me as a user, and seven years later I still find myself using it on a regular basis. It’s easy to use, intuitive, and app users start off with 10GB of free space. Box isn’t flashy when compared to high profile competitors like Dropbox and and Mega, but it does everything as well or better than they do.

Interface: 5. Simple, uncluttered, and smooth, and that goes for the app and the website. It’s really easy to upload, download, and share files via Box, and some actions that require a great deal of time and effort through other clients are reduced to one or two clicks with Box. Box and Dropbox utilize similar interfaces on both their apps and websites, so if you’re familiar with one, you can use the other.

Usability: 5. The iOS app is a delight to use and is packed with features rivaled only by Dropbox. The ability to Open In a variety of apps is great, but even better is the ability to Open and Edit a multitude of file types with the app of your choosing. No other service offers anything like this, so it’s both a special feature and an unbelievably useful tool you won’t know how to live without after using it once or twice. The website is also fantastic, and is one of the only storage sites that offers people the ability to comment on links and files in your cloud folders. This might not sound all that important, but you can now upload a worksheet for your students and monitor real-time feedback while they work on it.

The desktop app is also functional and adds a folder entitled Box Documents to your file hierarchy (how they missed the chance to call it “Box Dox” I’ll never know). Click on a folder in the web interface, select Sync, and you now have…well, the same basic syncing ability as every other client on the list, with the extra step of having to select which folders to sync through the website.

Sharing: 4. You can share files with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn users with one click through the site. The app limits sharing options to sending links, a problem at least partially obviated by the array of Open In options. Still, it would be nice for the app to mirror and enhance web options, and in this case it doesn’t. Like everything but Google Drive, direct links are available only to paying customers.

Features: 5. Box is one of the few services that allows comments on shared files, which I find incredibly useful and helps shift this from pure storage to a collaborative file locker. The option to add apps for file editing is also outstanding, and the security options rival those offered by Dropbox, including two factor authentication and an easily accessed list of account logins.

Drawbacks: -2. Other than the lack of direct linking (a problem endemic to free cloud storage), Box is a fine service and will fulfill most of your cloud storage needs. Box Sync seems like a half-finished idea, and I expect its functionality to be expanded in the near future. Until then, it isn’t quite as good as it should be, but it’s most certainly good enough for most users.

The deciding factor for some might be the paltry 250MB maximum file size. You might wonder if you’ll ever need 50GB of unfettered space, but I assure you there will be big files you want to upload in the near future, if there aren’t already. Students in my Film classes routinely create files bigger than 250MB, which means Box will never be my primary storage option. Which is a shame, because everything else about the service is pretty good.

Box 50GB

The evidence

Free space: 5. You get either 5 or 10GB free. Most of the folks I know who use Box have 10GB free because if you download the app and create an account, that’s the default amount of starting storage. No BoxQuest to worry about.
NOTE: As I was posting this, I logged into my secondary Box account to find that it had been bumped up to 50GB.

Then I learned that new users were being treated to 50 free gigs just for signing up through this link. If this holds true for the long term, Box and SkyDrive will change positions in my rankings. For now, I’m leaving things as is.

And go get your 50GB!

Verdict: 22/25.

Box aims to become a small business/enterprise solution, but it’s offering for individuals is agile and impressive. It looks and acts like Dropbox, but with five (or 25, depending on the promotion) times the space and a refined commenting system. The 250MB file size limit detracts from an otherwise stellar offering.

The Evernote app's main view

Honorable Mention: OHMAHGAWD THAT’S EVERNOTE‘S MUSIC!

This is a smackdown, after all, so why shouldn’t we have an unexpected entrant interrupt the proceedings? Evernote is unbeatable when it comes to accepted file types, sharing options, browser integration, tagging, and just about everything else. For a modest sum (5 bucks a month, though you can get bundled deals for MUCH less from MacHeist, among other places) you get 1GB of file transfers, unlimited total storage space, the ability to drag virtually any type of file into a note, and the freedom to share your notes or notebooks with the click of a button.

Evernote is simply the best organization/storage app of any kind. The research for this post was organized in Evernote by clipping webpages and dragging different file types into notes, then grouping those notes into notebooks and stacks. You can email directly to your account, clip web pages via browser extension, or log in via the website or the app of your choice.

evernote notebooks

As far as apps go, nothing on this list touches Evernote’s Android app. It’s better than its iOS counterpart, though that’s meant to be a compliment to the former rather than an insult to the latter. Evernote isn’t really a cloud storage service; the purpose of the app is to provide linked and synced devices across a variety of platforms. But using Evernote just for notes would be a waste of this incredible service’s broad functionality.

Evernote didn’t win (or even make the formal competition) for two reasons: 1) the paid service (while cheap) is the best way to go, and these are supposed to be free options, and 2) the note size is limited to 100MB even with a paid account, which means I occasionally have to break a Keynote or video up into pieces.

Skydrive

1. SkyDrive – If you need a cloud storage client that can do everything well, Skydrive is the most compelling and ultimately the most usable candidate on this list. You’ll get bulk drag and drop uploading, great looks, and an impressive roster of features. You can use the superb iOS app to do anything the website can, and the level of control you exert over permissions (force a sign in to view files, allow peer editing, etc.) is outstanding. There’s nothing SkyDrive gets wrong. SkyDrive performed so well in every testable way that it has me considering buying a Windows tablet to play with. THAT’S how good SkyDrive is.

Interface: 5. it’s beautiful! It’s easy to use! It’s everything Google Drive isn’t! If your folder has images or videos, SkyDrive pulls a still and makes that the tile image. That kind of loving attention to detail shines through in everything from the gorgeous, tile-based file display on iOS devices to the one-click ability to share in every way imaginable via the website.

Usability: 5. SkyDrive’s website blows every other service’s out of the water. It’s not only appealing to the aesthetes in the audience, it’s highly functional and packed with options. You can select your file and embed with one click while you chat with people via the site’s Facebook integration. The chat serves as a fluid commenting system, which might appeal you more than Box or CX’s static and comparatively antiquated commenting systems.

skydrive app

The app and website are both a pleasure. The only real drawback I could find is the fact that in order to work with files through the app, you had to open them in SkyDrive’s preview window (that and the unnecessary capitalization of the D in SkyDrive). Otherwise, the service just works. It’s easy (does it pass TMTT? No, but only Dropbox is close there), it’s visually appealing, and it does EVERYTHING.

Sharing: 5. Sharing individual files or whole folders is as easy as clicking a little box in the top right hand corner of the file’s tile from the website. Prefer to embed a file or folder? That’s achievable with one click, too. Things get a bit more complex through the app since it requires you to open a file preview before offering you download, share, open in another app, or recycle bin functionality, but this is a minor quibble, given how streamlined and thoughtful the rest of the app is. This isn’t like CX making you slog through an Activity screen before getting you to your files; this is one extra click for myriad useful options.

Features: 5. Did I miss anything? One click website sharing, deep embedding options, phenomenal app support and integration, permissions management, Facebook integration, plenty of free space…I think that about covers it.

Drawbacks: 0. Unless you are still fighting the antitrust wars of the 1990s, there’s no reason not to use SkyDrive, and quite a few reasons why you should.

Free space: 4. 7GB, no strings attached.

Verdict: with 24 out of 25 points, SkyDrive is our winner. Now go download it and see for yourself.

Finder cloud folders

Now if only there was an app that could connect all this free storage…

The Mom Test

98403-Moms-Rule

My mother doesn’t get along with computers. She doesn’t hate them, exactly, but she tends to find that they thwart her best efforts, regardless of what she is trying to do. This is not to say that she can’t use them; you don’t spend as many years as she did running the WP division of a major law firm without knowing your stuff. It’s more that they’ve always managed to make her life more difficult rather than less. She doesn’t enjoy them like I do, and that’s always made me a little sad because I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and edification from my first 286 right up to the iPads, MacBook, and Mac Pro sitting on my desk as I type this. I feel like well designed mobile devices can connect us to the world in a way few other things can. The right device is a portal to the world’s knowledge, a way to communicate locally and globally, a library and bookstore, the biggest local record shop on the planet, a hundred photo albums, an arcade — a virtual Swiss army knife for the human brain. So when the iPad came out, I wondered if it would be the first device to pass The Mom Tech Test (heretofore known as TMTT).

TMTT is how I assess most mobile technology at this point in my life. If my mother, a smart, motivated woman with some pre-existing computer knowledge but no natural predilection towards any device, can’t get motivated to learn how to use a product, then she either a) doesn’t need it or b) won’t be able to comfortably use it. A total luxury with a steep learning curve probably won’t survive for long (Surface Pro, I’m looking at you).

I should also be able to sum up the device in a pithy sentence. To wit:

“Mom, you should get an iPad. It’s a giant iPhone — touch an app and it launches, or go to the App Store to buy more cool stuff like books, magazines, apps and more.”

“Mom, check out the Surface Pro. It’s a tablet-notebook hybrid, so you can use the keyboard cover, stylus, and your fingers as input devices, but make sure you’re using programs designed for the Surface Pro’s x86 architecture rather than RT’s weaker processor, and remember that some programs are full Windows 8 ports while others are app-ish, so you want to be cautious about what you launch — yes, there’s an app store, but it doesn’t really have any apps yet, so you might want to — oh, I don’t know about loading old software onto this…”

My mom “got” the iPad; she’d still be reading the Surface Pro’s box. That’s the essence of TMTT. I’m not measuring tech knowledge or aptitude, but rather whether the device makes my mom want to use it.

I spent a few months talking up the iPad before she took the plunge. Once she did, there was no doubt that a long and fruitful relationship had been forged. It wasn’t long before my stepfather had his own iPad, which was a MAJOR step forward. My stepdad is the PC equivalent of Mad Cow Disease: once he takes hold of a computer, it’s only a matter of time before it’s creaking and croaking violently, deep in the throes of death, using system beeps to tap out Morse Code. I frequently hope his laptop will sprout legs and scurry down the fire escape ladder before he performs any more unspeakable acts (Emoji browser toolbar? Noooooooo…) on it. Like my mom, he’s a smart person who has used computers for decades in his work life; it’s that they have thwarted him everywhere BUT work. Despite his creative mind and curious nature, no device fit his lifestyle or adapted itself to his needs. The iPad did both. Before I knew it, the iPad had become an integral part of their world travels, and they now have two Apple tablets with more passport stamps than I’ve managed to accrue.

The iPad was an immediate success in my mother’s home, and I don’t think another device would have worked in the same way. My point is not that every device needs to prize simplicity above all else; it’s that ease of use is king, especially in schools and other educational environments, and there’s simply no competition when it comes to the elegant simplicity of the iPad. It passes TMTT, which means it’s no surprise that it also passes the Student, Faculty, and Administrator Tests as well. It’s not always about technological aptitude. We should find technology inspiring and emboldening, and it should integrate itself seamlessly into our lives. If the average user doesn’t want to spend time with it, and if it doesn’t make YOU want to learn it, why will your students feel any differently?

Bullies, big and small

When I was sixteen, a close friend presented me and a few mutual buddies with his Bullet List and asked if there were any specific students we felt should be added. I laughed. We all laughed. It wasn’t a serious murder plot; we were dumb kids blowing off steam in a wholly inappropriate way. Several times over the last few days, I’ve thought about what would have happened if that stupid list would’ve found its way into the wrong hands.

As most educators have probably heard, a popular blog posted some of the most vile, racist remarks made via Twitter after the re-election of Barack Obama. Now major newspapers are running with the story. Many of these remarks were made by children. And you can attach whatever significance to their remarks that you choose, but at the end of the day, one fact remains indisputable: they were made by children. Kids do stupid things. You did, too.

Please stop reading immediately and find some kind of medal for yourself if you can’t think of something you said or did between the ages of 12 and 17 that caused someone else pain. Now imagine if you were never allowed to move on, because for the rest of your life every search engine would return results about you alongside phrases like “BIGGEST TWITTER RACISTS” and “Redneck students’ racist tweets go viral.” Imagine being connected to your worst moment for the rest of your life and you have some idea what these ignorant young people have awaiting them. Anyone who has heard the name “Libby Hoeller” knows what a minor indiscretion as a teenager can do to one’s Google search results even ten years later.

Bullying is exclusively the province of the powerful, so if you’ve been powerless for even one second, you have the perpetual, inalienable right to act like a jerk to whatever or whomever wronged you. At least, that seems to be the message many are trying to send to our kids. This apparently extends to how we treat children, too. Is tweeting racist remarks offensive? Obviously. But is it more offensive than an adult blogger calling the schools these kids attend to ensure that they’ve been expelled? More offensive than forty year olds proudly outing the identities of racist children?

There are quite a few overmatched parents who can’t be there to monitor every single social media interaction their son or daughter has. And we are failing them and their kids miserably when we let the mistakes of youth be paraded in front of the world, and when we decide some kind of warped vigilante justice is more important than shaping our kids into better citizens. Is the die really cast at fifteen? Can we really discard a high school freshman because he or she foolishly published some racist thoughts? Are we honestly going to pretend that this student invented racism, and that he or she didn’t learn how to be stupid from equally ignorant parents, or even a world that allows codified, institutional racism to pervade virtually every nook and cranny of our existence?

Apparently, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” We are going to ignore it because people deserve to be punished. First the students who said stupid things. Then the parents who don’t monitor their kids’ social media output. Then the schools who don’t immediately acquiesce to the demands of morally repugnant, ethically challenged bloggers, desperate for enough clicks to keep Nick Denton from moving him or her to Dogbot, or whatever other hits-starved blog serves as the Gawker Media ring of fire. And all the aggrieved parties will proudly wave the banner of “doing what’s right” and “teaching kids about consequences.”

Well here’s a note from someone with a child, and who has spent the better part of my life instilling the best values I can into tomorrow’s leaders: YOU’RE NOT HELPING. Public shaming, scattershot “blame everyone” mentalities, using the full weight and power of adulthood to crush children…these are not the messages I’ve been trying to convey?

Thanks for the effort, but frankly, you absolutely suck at teaching kids anything if this is how you do it. And I hope to God you’re own children don’t ever feel the public wrath you’ve called down upon these kids, these hapless dopes who tried to act tough on Twitter. I hope your sons and daughters never get caught sexting, or publish inappropriate pictures to Instagram, or foolishly post pictures of themselves doing keg stands to Facebook. I hope they never use a sexual, racial, or homophobic slur, regardless of context. I hope their emails never get hacked, and I pray they never post something they regret on a blog. I sincerely wish none of that ever happens to these allegedly adult bloggers and their future children.

Because if they do, there are a lot of people watching who would like to teach you what schadenfreude is all about.

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Teacher/learner

A screenshot from Final Cut Pro X

I’m workin’ on it!

I’ve been working on a promotional video for my school’s Open House. I know we’re not alone in the importance we place upon Open House days; there’s simply no better tool for getting students and parents interested in your school. So I decided I wanted to really learn Final Cut Pro X, a deceptively complex movie editing program, to more effectively produce these little pieces.

After about two weeks, I would say i’m adequate at using the program. Not great by any stretch, but good enough to string together clips put to music. And it was a tremendous amount of work to get to that point. I was reminded of being sixteen, poring over guitar tablature or a snippet of The Stranger, trying to understand things that eluded me on virtually every level. I remembered writing my thesis, and tethering my iPad to the Smart Board for the first time. In short, it reminded me that I need to remain a learner, above anything else.

The further i get from my own education, the less effective I am in the classroom. Somewhere in the process of “mastering” FCPX, I started empathizing more emphatically with my students struggling with iMovie and even iPhoto. I took note of the video tutorials that worked and lamented the lack of clear written instructions. At times, I felt helpless just as my students do when I rush through something, or assign something for homework without adequate explanation. It happens from time to time, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to make every lesson reach every student. But I can say that the more time I spend acquiring new skills, the more adept I become at helping others do the same.

Copyright? More like copyWRONG, amirite?

My copyright-infringing masterpiece

Not so fast, E.T.

I designed a BEAUTIFUL etext for my junior and senior film classes via iBooks Author. It opened with a snippet from Raging Bull’s fight montage. The cover featured E.T. and Eliot flying past the full moon, an iconic image from one of America’s most beloved films. A slideshow of stills from Rosemary’s Baby walked students through different shooting angles, just a few clicks away from Citizen Kane and mise-en-scene, my favorite section of the piece. It was a text filled with sight and sound, the type of book students in my day couldn’t have ever imagined would exist. Immersive, interactive, filled with quizzes and clickable images…I really felt like I had accomplished something. I showed it to a few people over the summer and the response was uniformly positive. It was, I decided, the beginning of a brave new era.

I was painfully incorrect in that assessment. If anything, recent developments like the DMCA and TEACH Act have hamstrung educators in entirely new and awful ways, and we should be fighting back.

I’ve always lobbied under the delusion that my teaching materials were protected under the fair use provision of United States copyright law. And they were, more or less, until the horrendous TEACH Act was put into place in 2002 to strip mine not only our classroom materials, but out ability to grow and change with the times. Think you can make a handout with the Mona Lisa on it? Not according to the TEACH Act, which allows teachers to use material only as a part of mediated classroom activities, meaning you’re either in the room or, in a distance learning environment, on the digital stage lecturing. Want to include a still image of Douglas Fairbanks in your ebook? No you don’t, at least not if you want to stay out of copyright hell. At least you can show clips from his films, right? Well, kind of, but not really. You can show “reasonable and limited” portions of his work. What does that even mean? NO ONE KNOWS.

You can use photocopies of an interesting op-Ed in the New York Times, but only if it’s spontaneous. So if you plan your lessons out more than two hours in advance, you’re out of luck. Better start writing your own op-eds. The TEACH Act goes so far as to restrict converting material from analog to digital. So if you’ve ever scanned a document for class distribution, watch out: the Federales may be at your door. My favorite provision is the one that tells schools how far they need to go to protect major corporations’ rights:
“The institution must implement some technological measures to ensure compliance with these policies, beyond merely assigning a password. Ensuring compliance through technological means may include user and location authentication through Internet Protocol (IP) checking, content timeouts, print-disabling, cut and paste disabling, etc.”

Got all that? You MIGHT be able to use a grainy still picture from the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, provided you hire James Bond and Q to run your network security.

You might think this isn’t relevant for you, since many teachers are not creating digital resources quite yet, but I strenuously disagree. Yes, much of the TEACH Act is geared towards distance learning, but for those of us attempting to flip classrooms and create compelling digital resources for kids, it cuts us off at the knees. The TEACH Act expressly forbids making digital course packs, reserve materials, etc., that use copyrighted material. Which leaves you praying fair use will protect you, which is probably won’t, given the utterly subjective nature of the four fair use criteria. One of the criteria is how your work affects the market for the work you’re “borrowing” from. Well, I have absolutely no idea if my twenty second Raging Bull clip will bankrupt United Artists, but an argument could be made that my textbook’s use of the clip makes subsequent licensing less valuable, especially if they are selling licenses to massive textbook producers like Pearson or Houghton Mifflin.

So how do I find out? I get sued! That’s the only way to find out if your operating within the strictures of fair use. And, lest you think I’m just a lazy teacher looking to steal material, I contacted two of the pre-eminent minds in education law and neither could tell me how far fair use would extend. I also contacted a number of major studios. Of course they all tripped over themselves to assist an educator and expose their best work to a new generation.

I’m kidding, they either said no outright or asked for thousands of dollars. Except for one man…Charlie Chaplin(‘s estate). One of my favorite actors of all time(‘s estate) is allowing me to use two pictures of my choosing, and I genuinely appreciate it. I also think it’s an excellent way to give a new generation of students access to material they otherwise might never see. Why don’t the major studios agree?