Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ideas for Web Site Design

flixr has an interesting site devoted to examples of good web site designs. Since you probably won't have enough money for a designer for your next school web site, this is good place to see what you want.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Citing Google Books

The Chronicle has a good article on how to reference information found on Google books. This information can also be applied to all forms of online materials. This is an increasingly more common issue -- and most reference books don't provide information on the subject because the need is a recent one.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Zemble Text Messaging System

Zemble is a social networking site that uses text messaging for communications. This system could be quite useful for a school. It could be used to send out notices about school events and announcements of snow days.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Wikipedia CD-ROM for Schools

A selection of educational articles found on Wikipedia can now be obtained on a CD-ROM. This article describes the project that put together the CD-ROM and provides a link to downloading it.

This prepared CD-ROM is great for schools with a need for an online encyclopedia. Because the articles are selected by volunteers, you can be sure that the articles are truly educational and of good quality. This is a real benefit for younger students.

Another benefit of having a CD-ROM is that it can be used locally. Searching off a CD-ROM or from a local hard drive is going to be much faster than it would the same search over an Internet connection. You can also make copies to send home with students. The CD-ROM is free of charge. All you need to do is to down load it and burn it to a CD-ROM.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Foiling Keyloggers

A research group at Microsoft has come up with a simple method for defeating keystroke loggers. A keystroke logger is a software program or hardware device that captures all the keystrokes typed on the computer. The resulting collection of letters can then provide a hacker with your user name and password. It does not matter if you use encryption because the keystrokes are only encrypted after they have been received by the application you are using. The keystroke logging program captures the letters before they are encrypted. In the case of the hardware devices, they capture the characters before they even reach the computer. These devices often attach to the end of the keyboard cable just before it plugs into the computer.

This new method requires that you open up a second application, such as Notepad, and type in some characters in it between typing in characters in the password field. So, if your password is "safeenough" you would type "safe" in the password field and then type "dfafioiueeffda" into Notepad. After entering these extra characters into Notepad, return to the password field and complete the password. The application gets the correct password and yet any keystroke logger will see "safedfafioiueeffdaenough" as your password. Obviously, if you do this process a couple of times while entering the password, the effect will be even better.

You should use this security process anytime you are at an untrusted computer. And, of course, this system assumes that your password is being encrypted before it leaves your computer. You should always see the lock symbol on the browser anytime you're entering passwords or other sensitive information.

Remember, it's not just passwords you need to protect. If you have to type in anything else that needs protecting, such as social security numbers, use this system. Of course, if you can avoid untrusted computers, that would be great but often we do not have a choice.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Windows Fundamental for Legacy PCs

One of the killers of old equipment is the newer and more bloated operating systems. While hardware gets cycled out of most places every four years or so, the hardware is probably good for eight to ten years. Naturally, keyboards and mouse systems will die before then, but he basic components on the PC will be alive long after you wished that they weren't.

Microsoft has a little-known -- at least I have not heard of it until recently -- version of XP that is designed for older hardware. Only people who have the Microsoft Assurance Program. Usually, this means corporations but school districts may have it too. The operating system is designed to be a platform for the Microsoft remote desktop client. You will not be getting a fully functional Windows XP system. For older hardware, that ship has sailed. But if you have a boat load of older systems, getting this skinny version of XP along with a Windows terminal server could be a good option.

I also like the fact that this system improves your security situation. First, it allows you to run an OS that is being patched. Older systems often come with unsupported operating systems. This new OS puts you back into a supported environment. The second thing that improves security is the limited amount of functionality. Your students are going to have a more difficult time screwing around with computers with this limited OS simply because there is less they can do. With computer security, less is more.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Homemade Telephone System

Schools were not built to provide access for telephones. Installing a telephone system can be an expensive proposition. Given that most teachers have cell phones, why not use them? Most people have calling plans that make local calls free. Using cell phones also means that your staff can be reached regardless of their location -- even outside the building.

The main problem with cell phones as an alternative telephone system is reception. A system that requires a teacher to find a window to stand next to is not going to work. This is where having a cell phone signal repeater comes in handy. It takes a signal from the outside of the building and transmits it to the inside of the building.

The repeater has the ability to support multiple antennae cables. This allows you to wire up different floors or sections of a building using just one repeater. One downside is that if you want to support multiple cell phone vendors, you may require more than one repeater. Each repeater is configured for a specific frequency range. So, for example, T-mobile and Verizon may use different frequencies. If so, you would need a unit for each. Fortunately, they both can use the same internal cables to transmit their signals.

Oh, and one more thing: this system will make it easier for your students to use their cell phones too. The repeater does not have the ability to recognize specific cell phones.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Creating a cheap server

Here are some great instructions for how to create a low-end Linux sever for under $80. The hardware is $50 and the shipping is $30. Now, because you have a school, you may have a stack of donated computers to figure out. Let's face it, a donation can be a mixed blessing. You risk the wrath of the donor if you toss out the equipment or you end up invest so much time in fixing and maintaining the computer that a new computer would have been less expensive. Using an old computer as a Linux server makes a lot of sense. Linux runs great on low-end equipment. You don't have to use the old keyboard, mouse and monitor. These parts are probably broken, anyway.

The instructions above provide for a fairly general purpose server. If you just want a firewall or email server, you can use even older computers. In the case of the firewall, you don't even need the hard drive.

If you don't have donated computers, you may go to a recycling center (see this posting) or purchase from one of the online resellers (see this posting). And, don't forget that these old units can also be used for terminal server clients.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Reverse Dictionary

There is a wide selection of online dictionaries but OneLook is the first "reverse dictionary" I've come across. It's great for situations where you know what the word means but you cannot remember the actual word. This could be useful for students and for your own work. It also works nicely as a type of thesaurus. It also has the ability to check the definitions of words you find in multiple online dictionaries.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Keeping the little kids safe on the Internet

Middle school students and older may be actively looking for naughty content on the Internet, but most younger students simply stumble on it. While filters can help, they are not perfect. In Google, for example, one can still see the image icons for sites that one may not be able to visit. Even with the Google safety filter turned on, a great number of questionable images can appear.
The search engine goes a few steps beyond Google's safe search to make sure the content is acceptable for children. And, there are no images. The chance of accidentally hitting a bad site is greatly reduced. Combine this with a halfway decent filter and your school should be reasonably protected.

One more thing: you're not giving up Google to use They search Google and Yahoo! to obtain the search results. They just clean up the results list first.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Control your server closet on the cheap

As your server closet gets more crowded with more and more servers, switches, routers and firewalls, the ability to monitor them becomes an increasingly difficult task. I started using KVM switches (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) to control my servers, but as the number of servers increased, I found that the tangle of thick KVM cables became a real bother. The back of my servers is already a web of Ethernet and power cables. The KVM cables made things a lot worse and in some cases would knock loose a power cable and bring down a server.

An alternative method for controlling equipment is via serial connections. Most networking devices come with some sort of serial port. In some cases the port looks like an Ethernet port and is often labelled "console" and in other cases the serial port looks like the typical serial port on the back of your computer. What many people may not know is that most servers have the ability to be controlled via the serial port. There are limitations, such as no mouse control and no graphical interface, but these are not limitations for servers controlled via the command line. While Windows can be controlled via the command line, most people don't do so.

Even if your computer does not have the ability to redirect your video and keyboard output to the serial port, Linux and Unix have utilities that make this possible. So what are the advantages? Price is a big one. KVM switches, especially ones that can be remotely administered, can be expensive. The PortMaster box shown above is under $200. You will not find a KVM device that can monitor 30 units for anything close to this price. Another advantage is cable management. Instead of a three-part KVM cable, you're only running a serial cable. And, with special connectors, you can run an Ethernet between devices and plug it into a serial port adapter. This means that your equipment can be hundreds of feet away.

The one downside to the PortMaster box is that it does not come with an encrypted access port. This means that you need to use either a modem to connect directly to the unit or connect securely to one of your computers via SSH and then telnet over your internal network to the box. That's not a big constraint, but it's one you need to be aware of.

As I get more experience with this unit I post on my experiences.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Where to find free academic podcasts

A company called Productive Strategies has created a page with a number of freely available academic podcasts. I'm a big fan of podcasting. I think they are a great advance over radio. That a listen and see what all the excitement is about.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Online Book Summaries

LitSum is the best collection of book summaries I've seen. This site could help students to know if they want to read a particular book. It also good to know what's out there in case a student tries to pass off one of these summaries as their book report. Using online information is one of the problems the Internet has brought to the classroom. It's not that cheating was not going on before, but it is certainly easier now.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Who says graphic design cannot be open source?

Blender, when combined with programs such as GIMP, Ink Scape and NVU make for a fairly complete design setup. Blender is a three-D design tool. GIMP is like Photoshop while Ink Scape is like Illustrator. NVU is a web design tool, like Dreamweaver. I've used GIMP and found it to be quite usable. Some of the features are beyond me, but then so are many of the features in Photoshop.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Real-time Web Collaboration

Thinkature is web based collaborative brainstorming space. It's like having a whiteboard for a project group meeting. This could be a useful tool for students attempting to put together projects. It also can be used to teach concept mapping and brainstorming skills. There are other systems like this one, but this is one of the best I've seen that is offered for free.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Free Online Backup Site You Already Own

In July I posted on Microsoft's new FolderShare program. FolderShare allows you to synchronize data from one computer directory to one or more other computers.

One of the nice features of this system is that it takes advantage of the fact that most computers have more than enough storage space. There is no reason to pay some firm to store data online when your home computer is sitting there with lots of extra space and an always-on broadband connection.

Since July I've been using FolderShare and have found that it works well for simple file sharing. FolderShare pretty limited when compared to true backup systems. It can only handle ten libraries or packages of data. This may not sound too restrictive until you find out that it cannot share an entire drive letter. So, if your data is all under drive D, you cannot make a share out of drive D. You must go into the sub-directories and share them separately -- and be under ten. This is possible for small organizations and for individuals. Of course, one could set up multiple FolderShare accounts, but that might become too complex.

One great use of FolderShare is as a method for backing up laptop data. Install FolderShare on a laptop and then invite your home or office to share the data. Whenever the laptop is online FolderShare will make sure any new files will be transferred.

I suspect that FolderShare's features will improve in the near future. Google will most likely come out with some file storage system that will force everyone else in the market to respond. BTW, you need to be extra careful of the computers you backup to. I would recommend encrypting the directories you store your data. You don't want the data to be accidentally exposed. And, as you might expect, FolderShare is only for Windows.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Measure your bandwidth helps you to know how much bandwidth your connection has. This can be very important information if you are having connection problems. While the problem may be with a specific site it could be some line issue. The line could have problems or someone down the hall is downloading a multi-gig movie file. One of the things I like about Speedtest is that it can keep a history of your bandwidth tests. Seeing a pattern might help you to figure out what is going on.

If you're like me and have an international audience for your web servers, being able to know the effective bandwidth to various parts of the world is very useful. It's the only way to measure the experience your overseas users are having. This is critical if your distance-learning program has students in multiple countries.

I've been using various speed tests for many years and this one is by far the best I've used. Highly recommend.


Monday, November 06, 2006

New Google Earth

Google has released an updated version of their Google Earth site. The new version has all the features that use to be in the paid for version.

The site is great. The images are good and the ability to change the angle is surprisingly effective -- especially given that we know the satellite only took its shots from one angle.

With the elections coming up, the political maps are particularly timely for social studies classes.

There is a lot here. Give it a try and try stop using it. It's addictive.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Free File Converter

It is not as common as it once was, but every so often a student comes in with a file created at home in a format that your applications cannot read. I use to have a collection of file conversion utilities to handle these situations, but today I don't have any easily at hand. Zamzar is an online tool which takes any file up to 100 megs in size and turns it one of many other possible formats. Unfortunately, it does not handle my Real video files, but it gets most common formats.

Zamzar can probably be of most use with multimedia files. Unless you are creating all your content, you're probably going to be working with multiple formats. It's a real pain in the neck to have a sound track for your video only to find that it's an invalid format.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Using Dirt-cheap Computers

Here is one of several locations where one can get older model computers. Like car prices, old equipment loses value fast. This particular Dell GX150 is being sold for $47. The cost of shipping will come close to the price of purchase.

These units can be useful for schools for a variety of reasons. For terminal clients, these devices are fine. The dedicated terminal clients cost several times more and don't offer significantly more benefits other than small physical size.

Another good use for these old units is to replace a broken computer in a old computer lab. You don't want to get a brand new computer because all the students will fight for the new computer. Getting a unit like the ones you already have makes life simpler.

And, if you use these computers with Linux, these boxes can make great servers.

In an earlier posting I mentioned donated computers. What buying these old computers provide is a bit more control over what you are receiving. Plus, a donation may include a variety of hardware and there are great advantages to having standard hardware.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Language Resource

Language Guide provides a fair amount of information for beginners in learning a foreign language. The languages include Spanish, Chinese, French, German Arabic, and a number of others.