Learning to Code One Box at a Time.

Flashback to 1988.  I’m lurking in the electronics department of the local Sears department store.  I drift over to the shiny new IBM clone computers.  After a quick glance left and right to ensure the coast was clear, I deftly exited out of Windows 2.1 and launched GWBasic from the command line.  I only needed two lines of code.

10 Print “Sears is full of Idiots”
20 Goto 10

I’d press enter as I quickly walked away.  Not too far, however, because most of the fun was watching the “television expert” or the “appliance specialist” notice my handywork and struggle to try to stop it.  Soon, two workers would be huddled around the PC trying any number of key strokes before finally reaching around and pulling the power cable out of the back of the machine.  For those without any coding experience, let me explain.  Those two lines of BASIC code would display “Sears is full of Idiots” on the screen. Again and again, ad infinitum. No, this isn’t a “how I got caught shoplifting” story of my arrest, but the middle-aged appliance salesmen probably thought it should be.  This oft repeated exercise in hilarity was available to me through learning to code.

During the 1980s and 90s, coding was the realm of the geeks, the War Games watching nerds who entertained ourselves, I mean themselves, pounding away at a keyboard copying hundreds of lines of code from the latest copy of the Basic Computer Games series of books.  Back then, programming was for a small number of teens that had a particular interest in it.  Over the last five years or so, as technology has become more and more a part of our everyday lives, coding has become more popular in the mainstream of education. launched the first Hour of Code event in late 2013 and more and more schools are becoming involved.  However, many schools do not have the experienced teachers to fully implement a program and often the teachers feel too pressed to cover mandated curricular topics.  Coding is working it’s way into that category, but for most it is not there yet.

Many teachers, Instructional Technology Coaches and parents, however, see the value of coding and not just during one hour of one year.  But they need fun and engaging strategies and tools to use with students.  One interesting approach has been adopted by the team over at  They provide a monthly subscription program that delivers a box full of interesting coding activities by mail.  Last month, they shipped a sample box for me to take a look.  Now, as eager as I was to dive in, I decided that since Bitsboxes are targeted towards kids, I needed some help.  So I recruited a couple of nine year old kids (twins, A. and E.) to help me out.

Opening the box was exciting.  The box contained app trading cards, stickers, temporary tattoos and a mystery toy.  In keeping with the Spy theme of this box, the toy was a pair of special glasses that allowed you to look behind yourself undetected.  These are of course just novelty items to add a little interest; the heart of the box is the book full of coding apps.

The book is a well produced, glossy soft cover book of about 20 pages.  It feels good and I expect it will last even with repeated use.  It is filled with apps that can be entered into a web-based program that will actually execute the code.  Each sample app has an app code that you enter on the Bitsbox website from a computer with a hard keyboard.

So, we pulled out the MacBook and opened Chrome and headed over to  The instructions said to click on “Get Started” but I couldn’t find any such link.  I scrolled down and back up.  I reloaded the page.  Nothing.  I Googled it and the help I found was the same- just click “Get Started.”  But it was no where to be found.  I fired up a Windows PC and had the same results, no “Get Started” link to be found.  After I muddled around for a few more minutes, I played a hunch,  opened up Safari and there is was, top right corner, just where it was supposed to be.  I checked Firefox and the link displays properly there as well, but this is something the BitsBox team needs to address.  Especially with the popularity of Chromebooks in schools, this should work in Chrome, but if they can’t make that happen, then it needs to be prominently a part of the instructions.

Once you get into the site, you have to create an account.  This worried me a bit as it does require an email address for the kids account, but it is necessary to save your apps.  The FAQ page does include a tip on how to use the parents email address to setup a kids account and even how to create multiple accounts under the same email address.

Once that is done and you log in, you will see a virtual tablet.  Click the New App button a the bottom and you are prompted for a four digit App Number.  These numbers are in the App Book included in the kit.  Enter the number and you are presented with a virtual tablet computer alongside a coding area.  Now the kids enter the lines of code from the book.  Once entered (exactly, of course) you can click the green arrow to execute the program.  If everything has been entered correctly, the app will run on the virtual tablet.  The book will then prompt the kids to change a setting or two to demonstrate how the app works.

Here is where I was left wanting a little more.  I have the background to talk the kids through thinking about what was happening, but not all parents or even teachers may feel comfortable with that.  For instance, Bistbox uses the stamp command to display a picture.  I felt I needed to walk the twins through understanding that the stamp command would always do that but the variable that followed the command determined what picture would display.  There is no discussion of what is happening with each command in the App Book.

The apps start very simple, just two lines for the first one, but get progressively more complex.  With a bit more explanation by me about how the commands work and worked together, the twins were really starting to get the hang of not only entering and executing the sample programs, but were getting really good at predicting what was going to happen and how they could modify the app.  I wish the App Book included that challenge of predicting what might happen as that is a true gauge of student understanding.

The apps were engaging for the kids.  My test subjects took a bit of time to enter the lines of codes, however, which with taking turns meant that one of them was always just waiting in the wings.  I tried to keep the second kid engaged by prompting them with questions about what they thought this app might do, but for many teachers and parents, this could be a problem.  Any time a kid has to wait with nothing to do, there is a risk of losing them.  It would be great if the App Book included a background story that could be read by one as the other entered the lines of code.

Once an app has been entered into the web-based system and executed on the virtual tablet, you can click the share button to display a QR code.  The code can be read with any QR code reader app on a tablet device and the app will open and can be played on the tablet.  Once this is done, it does give that second kid something to work on while the next lines of code are entered into the computer.

It will take kids several sessions to work through a complete App Book, especially since the book ends with Coding Challenges that provide only a challenge and a few new variables that can be used to code an original app to complete the challenge.  While we haven’t gotten to these yet, I looked over them and expect them to provide an extended session while the twins work through the challenge.

All in all, I found the BitsBox to be well designed with only a few things I wished to see.  The missing link in Chrome should be an easy fix.  My desire for a backstory or some other activity to fill the time of a second child while the first one enters lines of code would be a huge plus, but I strongly believe that a parent/adult guide to accompany each book to provide guidance and vocabulary help would really make these kits an incredibly valuable tool.  They have such a guide now but it is not mentioned in the App Book.  I found it on the website in the Educators section, an area many parents may never think to visit.

Bitsbox does provide additional online activities and even has a dedicated Hour of Code page that can be used without a login and provides several additional free activities.  They also have a dedicated Educators page that includes that great Grownups Guide along with coding activities, some of which can even be completed without a device.

Bitsbox is a $30 per month subscription for the regular Bitsbox but a download only version is also available for just $20 per month.  You can learn more and sign up at

Note: Bitsbox provided me a complimentary sample box upon request, which was used to write this review.  They did not request, nor were they provided, any editorial review of this post.

Eye Observe Classroom Observation App Review

Earlier this week, I became aware of what could be an incredibly handy iPad app for Instructional Technology Coaches and administrators.  The app is called Eye Observe and, at least for now, it is available free in the App Store.  The purpose of the app is simple- provide a quick way to record educator observations, both notes and even video.

The app opens to a login screen at which you must create an account.  While not everything about the account is made clear, you are able to store observations to pull up later so hopefully that is the only purpose.  Once you are logged in, you are presented with a split screen. On the right is a live feed from you iPads camera above a blank area that you’ll later learn will display any video clips you have captured.  Below this area are a trio of buttons- New, Aggregate Reports, and Saved Forms.  Tapping New gives you a pop up men from which you can choose from four types of observation forms.  The included forms are Coaching, Record, Teaching Standards Assessment, and Technology Competency.  

The Coaching form is a well designed guide to record an initial coaching meeting with space to record outcomes and action plan for example.  It even includes space for both Coaches and Teacher comments.

The Record form provides a quick, easy to complete form to record classroom observations, walkthroughs, conferences, really any type of interaction between a coach and a teacher or admin and teacher.  You still have the option to capture video or still images that can even have notes attached to them.

Let me skip down to the Technology Competency form for a moment and I’ll come back to the Standards Assessment in just a moment.  The Technology Competency form provides a nice observation tool to record much if the technology usage and integration that is observed by the coach or admin. A self assessment is also available.  This forms allows the observer to record the number of students engaged with different technologies as well as the tools, software or web resources being used, but also gas prompts to record what type of interaction is taking place.  The prompts seem well thought out and there is just a hint of some local influence; that is some competencies and strategies that may be common or even required in Arizona but may not be as common in other areas.  I do wish there were national references here such as the ISTE Standards or even a quick SAMR scale to measure the level of integration but as the author is from Arizona State University and the app is copyrighted by the Arizona Board of Regents, there may have been some specific goals the team was trying to achieve.

Which brings us back to the Teaching Standards Assessment form.  Once again, this is a well designed tool to quickly record observations in a variety of settings.  The description provided indicates that this could be used either as a formative, ongoing assessment but also as a sum native assessment.  It appears to be very closely aligned to the Arizona evaluation system but it demonstrates some wonderful features.  While the bulk if this form is a series of Likert scale items a quick tap on the information button for each displays the continuum for that item.

While I have not tried to create a large number of dummy forms, the Aggregate Report and Saved Forms buttons clearly indicate at lease the ability to record multiple observations and to compile some of that data.

Now for a wish list.  This is clearly a fresh project.  All information that I could locate indicates that the app is free…for now.  Hopefully the Board of Regents will continue to provide this app for free.  Possibly they could add the analyzing of additional data for Arizona users for a fee to subsidize the app overall.

There is also the question of data security.  Is the data being stored on my device or, because I have logged in, is t being stored on a server somewhere?  Since this could include teacher performance evaluations, that answer needs to be made clear.

That login screen is a bit buggy too.  It works fine, almost too well.  Every time you leave the app, you are forced to login again.  This includes even if you simply jump out to check a text message or email.  During a full evaluation, this would get frustrating. (During the writing of this post as I jumped back and forth to detail the various forms, I have logged in 22 times.)

One promising thing is that it appears as if there is room for additional forms to be added.  This has great potential and could be the source of income.  I’d gladly download the app for free to have access to, say, just the coaching form, but take advantage of in app purchases for a few others, especially if they were less locally specific or even specific to my state.  

All in all, this is an incredible handy app as it is and with a few tweaks and a reasonable pricing model would certainly find a permanent place on my iPad.  Hopefully the team will continue to make it available to the education community. 

Eye Observe is available in the App Store at

EdCamp Montgomery Recap

On Saturday, April 2nd the first ever EdCamp Montgomery was held at Montgomery Academy.  I was a part of the planning team for this event and overall, everyone agreed it went great.  We had a smaller than expected turn out, but in some ways that was better.  In fact, well over ninety percent of those in attendance indicated that this was their first experience with EdCamp.  That is a great thing.  The EdCamp experience is different than other conferences and I believe word of mouth will have a positive effect on next years event.

Once the crowd gained an understanding of how things worked, the activity level and excitement really began to grow.  Even with such a large number of first timers, the session board filled quickly.  Members of the planning team were prepared to jump in to lead multiple sessions in case the participants were hesitant to lead sessions but as it turned our, some of us had to hustle to the board just to lead one!

I heard multiple positive comments and many sessions had standing room only.  The Google Classroom session was packed and all of the sessions I participated in were well attended with eager participants.  Davina Mann (@DavinaMann), Instructional Technology Coach from Owens Cross Roads Elementary School, lead a great session on Nearpod (@nearpod) and I hosted a session on Participate Learning (@participatelrn).  Mark Coleman and I joined up to facilitate an EdCamp tradition by hosting a “Things That Suck!” session that had the attendees debating a variety of education topics in the boisterous way that proves just how passionate today’s teachers are about their jobs, their schools, and most of all their students!

Just check out a few of the Tweets from the events:




Symbaloo Lesson Plans? Yes, Please!

I have been a SymbalooEDU user for several years now.  My default home page is a personal Symbaloo webmix that contains 140 of my favorite web links.  I became a user about the time that Google phased out the iGoogle tool and I needed something to speed up the process of getting to my commonly used sites.  Wait, I should make sure that I am not getting ahead of myself.  You are familiar with Symbaloo, right?

Symbaloo is an amazing bookmarking tool that allows you to create personalized tabs called webmixes on a custom page that is exclusively yours.  These webmixes can be populated with bookmarks to you favorite sites.  However, these book marks are added in the form of tiles that you can add from the vast Symbaloo library or create your own.

Check out this webmix that I created of various Educational Technology related sites-

As you can see, the webmix is packed with great resources, but even when embedded like this, users can still scroll around the webmix and it is fully functional.

This makes Symbaloo a perfect tool for teachers.  You can collect the resources that you want students to access and share the webmix by embedding it on your blog or class website.  Point the kids to that page and off they go. . . with guidance from you!

But Symbaloo wasn’t happy with just that.  During their weekly #symchat on Twitter, I learned about a new feature they are rolling out. (Side note- if you haven’t tried the Participate Chat tool from Participate Learning, you need to give it a try.  It makes following Twitter chats so much more rewarding!)

The new feature is a Lesson Planner builder around Symbaloo!  It is amazing.  You can create a lesson that can then be shared with students.  Students start at the beginning and work their way through the lesson that you built.  Want them to watch a video?  Add it to a tile.  Need them to visit a particular document on the National Archives site?  Add it to a tile.  As the students open a tile, the resource is presented to them.  Videos will play. Web articles will display.  You can even add formative assessment questions that students must answer.  A “Continue” button takes students to the next tile, which will launch automatically.  Because you design the path that students will follow, it is much less likely for students to get off track.

Tiles can lead to text that you input, a website, an online video, an online article or another Symbaloo webmix.  You can even add math problems with the built in formula builder or embed content from any other web-based tool that provides the appropriate HTML coding!  This makes the possibilities almost endless! Each of these tile options allows for assessment questions to be added and several question types are available.

Right now, the Lesson Planner is in beta and there are a few things I hope the Symbaloo team can add before the product is officially released.  For instance, it is a planning tool so I might not completely have all of my ducks, err, tiles, in a row when I begin.  I would love to be able to drag and drop completed tiles to reorder them or make room for a step I forgot.  Also, how about branching based on the answer to a question?  Can you say “choose your own adventure” lesson?

There is a nice little calendar icon on the lesson plan builder page.  Clicking on it brings up a message informing me that there are no assignments yet.  What the what?  Assignments?  How do I create them?  Are you teasing a new feature, Symbaloo?  Come on, let us at it!

I am working on putting my first lesson into the planner and so far, I really like how it works.  It does take a little re-thinking because you need to realize that whatever you include is something the kids will definitely see.  There are no hidden tiles (wait, feature request!).

As I continue to perfect my first Symbaloo Lesson Plan, check out this great example from Symbaloo PD Pro Sylvia Buller.

Explain Everything

Explain Everything has long been an incredible app for screen casting websites on iOS.  If you wanted to create a video of how to do something using an iPad, EE was the way to go.  You have been able to insert pictures or websites and the app would record the screen and your voice while you annotated on top of the content.  Recent updates added the same annotation capabilities on top of video.  Now you can further explain what is happening in that YouTube video by drawing directly on the video.

This is of course in addition to the wonderful whiteboard features of Explain Everything. This app has always allowed you to start with a blank canvas and draw on the whiteboard while simultaneously recording your audio. This made it for a great tool to quickly and easily create how to videos so that you could, well, explain everything.

Explain everything is particularly useful in creating demonstration videos. You can use the built-in video recorder to record an experiment, for instance, and then annotate on top of the video you just created. Of course this also plies to still pictures that can be taken with the camera as well.
Beginning late last year, the Explain Everything team took the app to the next level. As it had previously existed Explain Everything became Explain Everything Interactive and a new app was launched that is known as Explain Everything Collaborative. And it should be no surprise that this version adds real time collaboration.  It even works across platforms. The app is available for iOS as well as Android and Chrome book. There is even a version for Windows!  Along with this update to the app comes a new web based Explain Everything Discover portal that allows you to upload your creations to either public or private folders as well as download content created by other users.

All of these changes bring about a new pricing model for the app. Explain Everything now works on a subscription model. There is a free version however it only allows you to view collaborative sessions. In the Premium version, the collaboration features are available and you revive 2 GB of content storage.  The Premium account is a $4.99 per month subscription.  However, Explain Everything offers a EDU group account that provides all of the Premium features for up to 30 users and 5GB of content storage.  Additionally, the licenses for these users can be centrally controlled including revoking and reassigning the licenses.  All of this for just $7.99 a month.  Both of the premium options allow for annual billing with the equivalent of two free months.

You can start with the free version which includes the premium features for 30 days to let you decide, but since the EDU Group account could be used for an entire school or even just a group of teacher friends, I suspect that this will be the way most of you will go.  Think about it, you and two friends could split the annual $80 subscription at roughly $27 each.  You would each get an account for yourself and nine accounts for classroom iPads!

By the way, if you are happy with the features of Explain Everything Interactive (without the collaboration features) grab it now because they will be raising the price beginning April 15th.

March Apple Event Preview

Tomorrow, Apple will host a media event that is expected to focus on the release of an updated, yet smaller iPhone line, rumored to be called the iPhone SE, and a smaller version of the recently released iPad Pro.  While both of these releases are certain to cause a buzz in the mainstream tech media, they would have little impact on the education market.  iPhones traditionally are not part of the classroom purchases made be schools and the iPad Pro, especially in its very large 13″ form factor, has had little adoption in education.  While a smaller iPad Pro might bring the price point down to affordability for some schools, the iPad Pro line is still that, primarily a pro device.  The benefits of the Apple Pencil for drawing would be of particular use only in a few education niches and likely will have only a small impact.

However, there is an outside change that the Apple software team will spend a little time during the announcement to cover in a bit more detail some of the interesting education features of the previously announced iOS 9.3.  Released as a beta several weeks ago, 9.3 includes some much needed features exclusive to education and hopefully these will be more fully addressed tomorrow.

Two features really stand out.  First, Apple is releasing a new Classroom app that will allow teachers to see what each student is doing by viewing their screen.  Additionally, teachers will be able to launch apps and lock the devices into that app remotely.  Could this rival Nearpod and other similar apps?  We will have to wait and see, but it is always interesting to see how Apple incorporates new features directly into the software.

The second highly anticipated features relate more to device management.  Apple has long provided a device management system known as Apple Configurator but its limits quickly became obvious and third party Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions quickly overtook it, but they are limited by what Apple allows.  Now Apple is introducing Apple School Manager, a one-stop device and course deployment system.. ASM allows admins to management Apple logins, deploy iPads, install apps and even build courses all from one system.  This app alone to end the hassle of iPad deployments for technology administrators and could further spread iPads into schools.

I’ll be watching the Live Feed and will post a complete wrap up of all of the education related news tomorrow!

The podcast show title will be. . .

Just over a week ago I announced plans to launch a podcast this summer that would focus on helping Instructional Technology Coaches and the teachers they serve to stay abreast of the latest happening in educational technology.  The goal is to provide useful information related to technology news, the latest apps and software updates and tips for integrating technology effectively in the classroom.

I have been working on the format, the show features, and, of course, the show title.  So, here it is- the podcast will be titled “Today’s Tech Coach.” Take a look at the cover art below!

As I discussed in the original post, the show will begin as an audio only podcast with an occasional video post to my YouTube channel.  You may have also noticed the “& friends” listed along with The Big Tech Coach.  I have already begun contacting EdTech leaders that I have met and worked with in the past and hope to have them join me from time to time.
I am still looking toward a June launch, possibly to coincide with the Alabama Educational Technology Conference, and have even started the process of sketching out some plans for various features that I hope to include.  The show will include instructional coaching strategies in the Coaches’ Corner, app reviews and updates in Appoholics Anonymous and EdTech news in the News and Notes feature. If you have suggestions for additional features, I’d love to hear them. Just add a comment below, shoot an email to or call the Today’s Tech Coach voice line at 334-595-9092.

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