Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Visual Language of Chrome

 The Chromebook Classroom
This post is an excerpt from my new book, The Chromebook Classroom. You can download a free excerpt here! If you like it, you can purchase from or on Amazon! 

Teachers who use Chromebooks should adopt a common language to help their students quickly navigate ChromeOS. There are four key symbols that are found throughout the operating system that students should know and understand. Here's how I describe them when I train others on how to effectively navigate ChromeOS.

The "Google Waffle"

This symbol typically appears in the top right corner of Google services such as Gmail, Drive, and Calendar. Click to access your favorite Google applications.

The "Hamburger"

Also referred to as the "pancakes", this symbol represents settings, or options. In some versions of ChromeOS this symbol is in the top right corner of the Chrome browser. Clicking on it give you access to the Chrome menu.

The "Snowman" 

This symbol is also an indication for settings or options. It is frequently found in Chrome Apps. Some versions of ChromeOS have this symbol in the top right corner of the screen instead of the "hamburger."

The "Shish-kabob"

This rare symbol signifies application settings and is usually found within various Chrome Apps.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Turn any Website into a Chrome App

Any time I find a promising web-based tool I immediately check to see if they offer a Chrome App. In most cases, there isn't anything special about the app, it just provides a simple way for me, and my students, to access that particular website.

I have recently been playing around with Adobe Spark (see this post for a review). It's a great tool, but they don't offer a Chrome App. I recently discovered that it's super easy to turn any website into a Chrome App. It only takes 3 clicks!

  1. Visit the site 
  2. Click the "snowman" in Chrome
  3. Scroll down to More Tools > Add to shelf. 

That's it! You now have a link to your site on the shelf at the bottom of the screen and in the Chrome App Launcher. You can remove the app from the shelf if you wish and it will still be available from the App launcher.

Note that each individual user must do this; apps created in this way can't be pushed out to student devices.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Replacing the Research tool in Google Docs

By now you may have noticed that the "Research" tool in Google Docs, Slides, and Drawing has been replaced by the "Explore" tool. While Explore adds a few nice features (see my previous post for a complete overview), it has removed the citation feature which was heavily used by K-12 teachers.

There has been a fairly vocal outcry from educators because of the removal of the research tool. If you are disappointed that the research tool is no longer available you can send your suggestions to Google by opening a Google Document and visiting help > Docs Help > Send Feedback. 

Google does seem to be listening to this feedback as a the Docs team has created a survey exploring the use of the research tool. You can complete the survey here.

**Update the survey above is no longer accepting responses. The Docs team is reviewing feedback and considering a solution.**

While I too am a bit disappointed that the Research tool has been removed, there are a few facts to remember: 
  • The "citations" generated by the Research tool weren't really citations, they were footnotes.
  • Sometimes all you got was a link to the source, not the author, date, publication, etc.
  • While the Research tool gave you the option to switch between MLA, APA, and Chicago style, the formatting of the "citations" weren't in the correct format anyway. 
  • The research tool didn't create a bibliography or works cited page. 
Yes, the Research tool was a great place to start and I would love to see it brought back. However, there are some even better ways to handle citations and bibliographies that you can use right now!

EasyBib - Add-On for Google Docs

EasyBib has developed a free add-on for Google Docs that make it super easy to cite books, articles, and Websites. Just enter the URL, title, or ISBN number and EasyBib does the rest. The add-on will create a works-cited page (bibliography) for you and supports dozens of citation styles (most of which I have never even heard of!). Get started by connecting the add-on here

EasyBib also offers a Chrome Extension, however it requires setting up an EasyBib account and is not as easy to use as the other citation extensions listed below. If you are an EasyBib user, or your school has paid for the premium version of EasyBib, the extension may be of value to you. 

Cite This For Me - Chrome Extension

Visit any website and click the "cite" button and you will receive an automatically generated citation in your preferred format. Click "add to bibliography" to collect all of your sources and then copy/paste or download your list for further use. One neat thing about Cite is the fact that you don't have to log in or create an account to collect your resources (although the recommend that you do.). I tested this extension on several obscure websites and it did a great job. It even prompts you to enter missing information that it is unable to find. 

Apogee Citation Creator - Chrome Extension

Apogee is a super light-weight extension tool. Click the button and get your citation. No configuration, settings, or advanced options. Copy the citation and paste it wherever you need it. Apogee isn't as accurate as Cite This For Me (sometimes it misses the author), but it gets the basics. 

Citation Machine - Website

For very specific or obscure citations (Podcasts, YouTube Videos, etc), you may need to create a manual citation. I have used Citation Machine for many years (it helped me earn my M.Ed. degree!). It has been updated a bit, but is still dead simple to use and supports hundreds of different source material. Citation Machine doesn't automate the citation process, but it guides you through and creates perfect citations. 

I have looked at four possible replacements for the Research tool. Even if Google brings back the Research feature (we can hope!), you will need one ore more of these tools to create a true, properly formatted citation. 

I know there are many more citation tools out there. If you have a favorite that you would recommend, please leave a comment below!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Adobe Spark for Simple Multimedia Projects

One of the most important things we can teach our students is to communicate ideas to others. Multimedia is a great tool to do just that. As educators, we would be negligent if we did not help our students become effective consumers and creators of multimedia. Because I believe strongly in this, I am always on the search for simple tools that allow students to communicate with words, pictures, video, and audio.

One great option is Adobe Spark - a free tool from the creators of PhotoShop, InDesign, and many other professional design products.

Adobe Spark has a few immediate things going for it:
  • Simple log in / signup process (You can use your Google Account)
  • Super simple interface with minimal buttons and clutter. 
  • Fully web-based and works outstanding on a Chromebook!
There are three different project options in Adobe Spark - posts (still image), page (mini web-site) or Video (photo slide show). 

I worked with my two oldest kids to create a short video project on pollution (their science topic for this week). They went out with their Android tablets to take pictures and then we incorporated their photos, text, and voices, into the video project.

The project interface is simple enough for elementary age students to easily navigate. Icons throughout allow early readers to navigate with ease.

The video project type allows you to select images, add text, and add short voice-over if desired. Adobe Spark automatically applies a fade in/out to pictures (Ken Burns effect) to add interest. A generous library of royalty free music provides background accompaniment.

There are 5 page layouts from which you can choose. The limited options keeps things simple and allows project development to progress quickly.

Audio recording occurs on each individual page. Simply press and hold the microphone button while you speak.

Spark also provides a solid selection of project themes to ensure that the fonts and colors used in your project are easy to read and match nicely. You must chose from one of the provided themes which can not be customized.

Adding images is easy as Spark provides a (limited) image library and also integrates with Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe LightRoom, DropBox, and Google Photos. For our project we uploaded pictures into a shared Google Photo Album and were able to easily access them from Spark. You can also directly upload your own pictures if you wish to get pictures from Google Drive or another storage solution.

It was quite simple to collect all of our material, design, and polish our video project. We spent about 30 min. putting everything together (not including taking the pictures). The entire project was completed on an Acer Chromebook.

Here is our finished Spark video project!

There are a few things to consider before adopting Spark for your next class project.
  • Spark is not collaborative -  students will need to share a device if you want to make this a group project. 
  • Spark is slow - I was a bit frustrated by the slow loading speed of our project, photos, etc. It works great, you just have to be patient. 
  • Adobe adds a "made with Spark" screen at the end of your presentation. You can chop it out if you use a video editor.  
  • Spark does not support video uploads - You can only work with still pictures
I was generally impressed with Adobe Spark and will certainly use it for future projects. If you are looking for a simple multimedia project option that works great on a Chromebook, Spark is a great option! 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: Chrome Gopher

For organizations managing large numbers of Chromebooks, the Google Admin Console doesn't provide the easiest management experience to organize, update, and monitor the health of your fleet of devices.

The fine folks over at Amplified Labs (a division of Amplified IT) have developed a new Add-On for Google Sheets called Chrome Gopher that is designed to provide simple management tools for IT Admins in charge of device management.

Chrome Gopher is free to use for 14 days. After the free trial, you will no longer be able to push updates back up to the admin console. You are able to refresh data and view summary reports. More information on pricing is available here.

Chrome Gopher has similarities to Chromebook Inventory, another Chromebook management add-on for Google Sheets. Chrome Gopher is considerably faster than Chromebook Inventory and also offers several unique features. 

To use Chrome Gopher, create a new Google Sheet and visit Add-Ons > Get Add-Ons and search for "Chrome Gopher"

Once installed, click on Add-Ons > Chrome Gopher > Launch. This will open the Chrome Gopher interface. The initial screen provides some helpful filters so that you aren't overwhelmed with more devices that you can handle.

If you only wish to view/manage devices in a specific OU, choose the appropriate Org Unit Path.
If you only wish to view devices that were recently enrolled, adjust the enrollment date box.

Note: you must be a Superuser on your Google Domain in order to use Chrome Gopher. 

Select import and Chrome Gopher will populate your Google Sheet with the devices that match your import settings!

Chrome Gopher is surprisingly quick. I was able to import nearly 3,000 devices in a matter of seconds.

Once the import is complete you will find a wealth of helpful information that will help you configure, manage, and monitor the health of your device fleet. Chrome Gopher will create four tabs (sheets) within your spreadsheet.


The device tab display the current information about every device you have requested. The first five columns in this sheet can be updated and pushed back up to the admin console, updating your fleet information!

This will allow you to do any of the following:

  • Move devices between OUs in bulk (compared with 50 at a time in the admin console). 
  • Update internal asset IDs for inventory purposes. 
  • Add notes about repairs and device assignments
  • Add an assigned user account. 
Because Chrome Gopher is powered by Google Sheets, multiple users can be working simultaneously to move and update settings during a large Chromebook enrollment project. You will want to use the filter function of Google sheets to take full advantage of Chrome Gopher. Sort your data as needed to update specific OUs, users, or types of devices. 

If you are running a 1:1 program, during device distribution, sort the sheet by serial number or asset tag so that as you hand out devices you can add in the assigned user and any necessary notes. 

Once device distribution is complete, simply have a domain Superuser upload the refreshed information to the admin console. 

The features above represent the core management capabilities of Chrome Gopher, however a considerable amount of data has been provided that can be used to evaluate the current health of your devices.  

OU Activity

The OU Activity tab provides a breakdown of how many sessions (user logins) have occurred in the past 15 days and how many minutes that devices has been utilized 15 days. It also helps identify devices that have not been used or synced recently, indicated a misplaced or broken device, or a device that is being underutilized and should be moved to a location with greater demand. 

OS Version

An updated version of ChromeOS is released by Google approximately every six weeks. Each new version contains important security and feature updates that will keep your Chromebooks operating in top condition. Devices that are not updated to a current version of Chrome indicate a device that has not been utilized (it must be powered on to receive the update) or may have a technical issue that is preventing it from updating.

Generally, users won't experience any issues using a Chromebook that is within 2 release version of the current OS release. Older releases can potentially lead to issues related to sync settings, admin control, security patches, and app compatibility. The ability to see which devices in your fleet have not updated allows you to investigate the reason these devices are not receiving updates from Google.

As you can see from the screenshot below, about 250 of my devices are running Chrome 49 or lower. These devices need to be updated to ensure that users don't experience issues using these devices.

Note: Before physically evaluating devices that are not updating, make sure you review the Auto update settings in the admin console to ensure that you have not turned off auto-updates or pinned an OU to a specific OS version. 

OS Version by OU

The final tab provided by Chrome Gopher displays the version of ChromeOS running within my various organizational units. This can be helpful in determining why a device may not be updating. For example, I was able to see that 17 of my devices that are running Chrome 42 (very old) are spare devices that are not currently in service but are reserved as replacements. This isn't concerning as these devices are boxed and have not been turned on in quite a while.

I can also see that one of my carts has 29 devices however those 29 devices are running 8 different versions of ChromeOS (weird!). By filtering my sheet I was able to determine that only 7 of the devices have been used this month. This likely indicates that updates are waiting to be installed when the device restarts and will likely resolve with more use.

This also caused med to check the update settings for this OU in the admin console where I noticed that auto-reboot had been disabled. This means that a user must completely turn off the device before it will install a new version of the OS (log of will not install the update). With auto-reboot enabled, Chrome will automatically restart if a new OS version is present and a user signs off (because Chrome starts so insanely fast, users won't even realize that the device has restarted).

Activity Report

But wait! There's more! Chrome Gopher can also generate an activity report for a specific device or user. This can be used to find a missing device, investigate a damaged device, or monitor student activity. Click the "activity report" icon in the Chrome Gopher panel and search by email address or device serial number.

The report shows a list of recent users (by user ID) and session time.

Chrome Gopher is a tremendous tool for managing and monitoring the health of your Chromebook fleet. For those managing a large number of devices it will be well worth the subscription cost. 

Learn more about Chrome Gopher: 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Corporate Certifications - Are They Worth It?

Corporate certifications are pretty popular - Google Educator, Microsoft Innovative Educator, Apple Distinguished Educator, Discovery STAR, etc. I would argue that at the moment, these credentials have more "street cred" and glamour than most accredited degree programs. At conferences around the country I see educators writing "Google Educator" on their name badges; I don't see them writing, M.Ed., Wayne State University.  

It is worth considering the merits of a un-accredited certification offered by a for-profit company. Are these programs more swagger than substance? How an independent educator approach such opportunities? 

I myself am a Certified Google Innovator (Certified Teacher), Google Certified Trainer, and oogle Certified Administrator. I've taken every certification that Google offers and am actively engaged in helping other educators earn their certifications ( I have friends who are Apple Distinguished Educators (ADE), Microsoft Innovative Educators (MIE), and Discovery Education Network Gurus (DEN). 

When considering any corporate certification program, keep three things in mind: 

Spread Ideas not Products

Any certification that is designed to increase adoptions and sales of a products is probably not something that you want to be involved with. That would make you an unpaid sales rep. A good certification program recognizes the timeless principles of teaching and learning and seeks to empower educators to do amazing things by equipping them to understand and master those key ideas (and yes, that may involve using specialized software and hardware).

The training provided through these programs should be more than just "button clicking" training designed to make you an expert user of a product - it should show how a suite of products or devices can open up new learning opportunities and support effective instructional practice. True transformative use of technology is about pedagogy, not the title of the latest device or piece of software.

Connect people not sales teams

Certification programs should seek to connect like-minded individuals in an effort to encourage radical innovation through the exchange and sharing of ideas, experiences, and thoughts. All certification programs should feature a thriving community with rich discussion, sharing of resources, and open innovation.

Beware of any program motivated by a desire to carve off quality content for use in pitch decks and promotional stories or for the development of an unpaid sales team that will promote and pitch products to potential new customers. Seek programs that offer multiple avenues to connect with innovative and creative people - through online communities, resource databases, and in-person meetups.

Provide no-strings attached opportunities

Certification programs should connect people and provide opportunities without expectations. Certified individuals should not be required to use the products of the company offering the certification or prevented from speaking freely and honestly about those products.

For hundreds of years, educators have served the role of watchdogs against corruption and negligence- protecting and warning the public. This was the primary reason that tenure was developed - to prevent the termination of a faculty member who took an unpopular position.

The same should be true of any brand-name certification. Yes, it is fine to encourage excitement about a product, to the point that individuals share that excitement with others. But, if a company wishes to benefit from such excitement, they must also be willing to listen to the constructive feedback of that same group when they have missed the mark.

Are corporate certifications a good thing? In most cases, yes. I believe that Apple, Google, and Microsoft (as the three most dominant tech companies in education right now) are positively impacting education through their certification programs. However, as educators, we do need to recognize our role as independent thinkers and ensure that our commitment to our students and communities comes before our allegiance to a corporate super power.

Have you earned a corporate certification? Did your experience line up with the three principles I outlined above?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Google Admin Console Configuration: Chromebook Settings

The Google Apps (G Suite) administrator console is what makes Google Apps an outstanding solution for K-12 schools. The ability to configure and adapt the settings of your devices to the unique needs of your district is worth every penny of the...O, wait, it's free!!!

While the admin console is very powerful and helpful, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don't have a ton of experience with enterprise controls in general or Google Apps specifically. There are a LOT of configuration options within the admin console. The reality, however, is that there are only a few settings that are critical.

This post explores the the critical settings needed in order to deploy Chromebooks in your district. If you haven't done so, make sure you read my previous post on configuring the core G Suite apps and the other Google Services.

The recommendations below are the bare minimum that an admin should configure when deploying Chromebooks. There are many more settings that can be configured to optimized your fleet of Chromebooks.

These settings can be found by logging into the admin console and selecting device management > Chrome Management > Device Settings

Enrollment Controls
These settings ensure that your managed Chromebooks remain under the control of your administrative settings.

  • Force device to re-enroll into this domain after wiping
  • Enable verified access
Sign In Settings
Who can sign-in to your devices? That's the key question here. 
  • Disable guest mode (for most situations)
  • Restrict sign-in (enable to force staff and students to use their district provided account)
Device Update Settings
New versions of ChromeOS are deployed every six weeks. In most cases, you will want to leave automatic updates on and let your devices updated as needed. If, however, you have testing applications that require a specific version of Chrome, you will want to freeze your devices on that version as rolling back ChromeOS is difficult. 

That's it for device settings! Next you will want to update the Chrome User settings which can be found here: device management > Chrome Management > User Settings 

Apps & Extensions
The key setting here is the one that says "Allow or Block Apps?" You need to decide if you are going to whitelist, blacklist, or push content from the Chrome webstore. If you want to push (auto-install) content to student devices, select "block all apps" and then use the force install section to select and deploy the content that you wish. 

Incognito Mode
It is best to disable Incognito mode for student devices. The feature allows a user to browse anonymously so that visited pages are not stored in the web history. Disable incognito mode in the "Security" section of Chrome User settings. 

The Chromebook Classroom by John R. Sowash
These are key settings that should be immediately configured when deploying ChromeOS devices. For help in completing your ChromeOS configuration, pick up a copy of my book, The Chromebook Classroom, which includes a comprehensive deployment and configuration guide for Google Administrators. 

You can download a free excerpt of the admin section here. The Chromebook Classroom is available for purchase at or on Amazon