Monday, September 22, 2008

Site maintenance issues

For some reason, the formatting on the first page here is weird as you get to the older entries.  Troubleshooting time spent so far has yielded little info as to why this is happening.  Obviously, it's going to take some deeper poking around.

Which means, if I get more spare time I'll get to work, but if I don't then it'll just have to look stoopid and weird for a while :-)

Rainbow Water Conspiracy Exposed!!!

I get asked a lot what we "use" for curriculum.  I don't use a lot of packaged things, except for and for math, and Growing With Grammar for English grammar.  I explain that we get inspired by everyday life, or current events, and just go off on tangents. My job is to act as a facilitator, making sure the materials are available that help explore the issue at hand.

Many non-homeschoolers don't quite get how the inspiration part happens, so here's a case in point: This one could trigger study of topics in physics, chemistry, critical thinking and even social studies (mental health care, education, substance abuse prevention, political paranoiacs and their role in a democracy...)

Monday, September 15, 2008

HowTo: Home Theater PC Rationalized As Educational

Way back in the late Jurassic * I decided that a big flat screen TV would be nice to have.  Then I started thinking about all the other cool stuff one could do with Giant TV screens - besides TV that is. (*Okay, last year sometime...)


Many months have gone by, and I've chipped away at setting up a killer HTPC/Home Theater/Giant TV Classroom.


Hardware Ingredients:


Samsung LN46A550P 46-inch 1080p Flat Panel TV - Amazon has great deals, but check locally for sales


HP Pavillion Elite m9177c, running Windows Vista Home Premium - was where I found this for only $650 total - shipped from CA


ChannelMaster StealthTenna with amplifier- from SolidSignal, a package deal with the antenna, amplifier and a J-mount for $70 plus shipping


Quad Shielded RG6 coax, fittings - from Lowe's, price varies depending on length


I also had "on hand" a wireless network home network with a high speed cable broadband connection, an old Harmon Kardon amplifier and even older Technics speakers with the appropriate cables to connect the TV, computer, and amp.


Why Windows?


Several reasons.  First, the price was great - the specs on this machine are such that I couldn't have built it myself for $600, so considering the learning curve and angst that would have entailed, this made sense.  Second, I was originally looking at Macs, but the only model that would have been able to run some other programs that my husband needed (RealFlight G4, a Windows-only R/C helicopter simulation training) would be a VERY pricey MacBook Pro, or the tower unit PowerMac.  As in "a few grand" pricey, and still needing Windows OS added to the total.


Additionally, TV tuners for Macs are just not that great - I want to be able to record from multiple tuners, some HD, some analog, and there's no supported, reliable software for Mac to do that yet.  El Gato doesn't officially support multiple tuners, you can squeak by and get a little bit of dual tuner function, but it's buggy - it can't tell between HD and analog tuners, so you may end up with your HD program not getting recorded or mixed up with the analog tuner.


With Windows Media Center, you can do up to four different tuners.  If you decide to use other media software, like BeyondTV, they support unlimited tuners (at least by the software, you might wonder where to install them all, check out the 10 tuner Hydra on their site)


Why a computer with Giant TV?


Because Giant TV is Giant!! Geez, do I really have to explain? Okay, that and I wanted to rid myself of Dish Network's satellite service and that would mean no DVR.  With the computer being my DVR now, I just hook up a TV antenna for over-the-air HD channels and the analog cable that comes bundled with my internet broadband handles the rest of the networks.  The HP m9177c comes with a dual tuner card installed in the PCI slot, and an empty PCI slot for future additions, as well as a boatload (5-6, can't remember) of USB 2.0 slots for external tuners if I wish.


So, no reason to keep paying $80 per month to Dish, and no reason to pay an additional $70 monthly to the cable company for a few more HD channels and a DVR.


The other reason a computer makes sense is that we do a LOT of schoolwork online or using programs on disk.  The kids both have old G3 iMacs, but they're getting less useful for anything other than web surfing.  I wanted to be able to have all of us in the living room working together, and being able to see it, like on a chalkboard.  This works beautifully. It makes things so much more pleasant and low-key to be on the couch and comfy while working.


I also have been using iTunes to download podcasts that are of interest to us - science, history, fiction.  I'll post later about some of the great offerings out there, suffice it to say that listening in the comfort of the living room is an easy way to get the kids to hear and pay attention without a big fuss.


Cool software and applications that I love so far:


Windows Media Center on Vista Home Premium: This is the linchpin of the whole shebang.  The user interface is gorgeous, and it's fairly easy to do all that you need to - configuring the tuners, settting up the free electronic program guide, configuring the TV display, etc. were all quickly done.  It is a much more intuitive interface than the vanilla Vista software.  Hard to believe the same company makes both...


My Netflix plugin (free) - this allows anyone using Vista's Media Center software that has a Netflix account (from the 8.99 one-at-a-time level and up) to stream movies and TV shows from the Instant/Watch Now section directly to their computer, without shutting off the Media Center application.  Without this plugin, you have to open Internet Explorer and use the Netflix site directly.  BORING!!  Especially since Firefox is my preferred browser.


MyNetflix is a really nice watching experience.  All at no extra cost beyond the Netflix subscription price.  Not much in the way of great current films, but a surprising number of excellent foreign films, as well as TV shows from Showtime, Discovery Channel and History Channel are available.  Caveat: No closed captioning for any streamed Netflix, just subtitles for non-English speaking movies.


iTunes for Windows and Tuneranger: I now have iTunes sync'd for all the computers in the house, using the Tuneranger application.  They have a free trial for 30 days, after that it'll set you back $30, but it's licensed for 5 computers.  You need Tuneranger to be on all your machines that you want to sync, so it's worth it.  With iTunes, I get TV shows and series that I may have missed, albeit at a small cost (still less than premium cable).  I also follow a number of free podcasts that really enrich our educational experience.  Beware iTunes 8.0, it's been breaking in Vista, so stick with the 7.x if you can. for math: This is an internet application that requires you to install a Java plugin, it's both Mac & Windows compatible.  It's a subscription service running $19.95/month, with 6 month and 12 month plans that offer a discount, as well as additional child discounts if more than one in the family are enrolled.  My 5th grader likes it because it doesn't involve dreaded WORKBOOKS and loathsome amounts of repetition.


ALEKS claims to be an artificially intelligent program that accurately gauges where your child needs to get more practice, and where they can jump ahead.  What we see in daily use is that he gets a few problems, and if he does them all correctly, he gets credit added to his pie graph chart that keeps track of all he should be learning.  There's a short review every day of the material learned the day before, and there are reports that keep track of his progress.  As the account admin, I can change settings on his account, set up assessments and change his course level as I see fit.  The price is always the same per month, even if you blow through the levels.


He has control over what he wants to learn by way of the pie graph divided into different subjects.  However, if he wants to just do Geometry or Algebra, while skipping Multiplication, it only lets him go so far.  If he needs more background on one subject, he's told he's not ready to continue til the other pie pieces get tended to. This saves so much nagging on my part!


Math U See: My second grader is currently using these video math classes until such time as ALEKS will make sense for her (ALEKS math starts at grade 3 level, nominally).  These are on DVD, and have workbooks and manipulatives that go along with them.


There are other educational things I'll be testing on the system, such as Rosetta Stone  or LiveMocha,  and I'm curious to see how the videos from EdVideo Online look (this is available free for NY State students and educators, if you're in another state, check with your local PBS affiliate or school system)