Thursday, December 27, 2007

Outdoor School: Purchasing GPS Receivers

Now that I've expanded my blog topics to include more than just Palm handhelds, it's time to address purchasing GPS receivers. For those of you who know me, you know that I am an avid Geocacher and advocate of location-based learning...both in real time and virtually using my favorite geobrowser, Google Earth.

As an instructional technologist for a K-12 school district, I am often asked which GPS receiver to purchase for student use - and yes, this is different than what I would purchase for home use.

First, you need to decide what features you want. Here are the features that I personally like on a GPS for students:
  • Easy to use buttons that are labeled: this is extremely important! GPS units with unlabeled buttons located on the side of the unit are hard for students to use. Before you purchase, try adding/editing a waypoint/point of interest. Is it easy to do? How long does it take to edit a point?
  • Screen size: I prefer a larger, black and white screen. Color is nice, but doesn't really add anything other than draining the batteries at lightning speed.
  • Built-in map database of North America, including interstates, highways, major roads, waterways, city locations, and airports: Some people may argue that base maps are not needed for student use, especially when using them at outdoor school where there may not be any major roads or cities. However, in using GPS units with a variety of students (from 1st-12th grade), having the ability to zoom out and see where you are with respect to highways, states, countries is much more interesting than just seeing a little black triangle on the screen with no locational context.
  • Ability to upload/download coordinates from the GPS receiver: This is a huge time saver when setting up GPS activities for outdoor school. In the past, when setting up GPS activities I have had to take every non-uploadable GPS out and mark the locations. On the other hand, when I have used an uploadable GPS, I take one unit out with me, mark the locations, download them to my computer and then upload them to each GPS. This way the coordinates are identical and I can also save the coordinates on my computer for future use.
The GPS unit that I currently recommend for student use is the Magellan Explorist 210. It is a sturdy device (I have dropped them several times) with easy to use buttons, comes with base maps, and you can upload/download points. You can find it online for around $135.

For personal use, I also like the ability to load
detailed topographic/street maps. In fact, I have three different personal GPS units and have detailed maps for both North America and Europe. Two of the units, one Garmin and one Magellan, have SD memory card slots. This makes it very easy to carry as many maps as I need, as all I have to do is pop in the card that has the map that I have downloaded from my computer to the card. For those GPS units that do not have SD card slots, you'll want to make sure that there is enough built in memory to handle the maps that you want to use and that it comes with a cable to connect to your computer.

Two older companies that sell GPS receivers include Magellan and Garmin. I've purchased other less expensive brands for school use, but in the long run, was sorry that I did. For additional information, see the product comparison charts for Magellan and Garmin.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Clickers, Infrared, and Fluorescent Lights

I was recently visiting a with a second grade teacher who was having trouble using his student response system (Clickers). After doing some testing with his students, I had a sudden flashback to a problem that some of my teachers had with their Palms when they tried to beam in their classrooms. Both Palms and the Clickers use infrared technology to beam information and sometimes fluorescent lights cause the infrared not to work very well. In the case of the Palms, the students just had to move away from the "dead zone" to another part of the room. However, with the Clickers, all students are beaming at one time while sitting at their desks. With the lights on, students had to click in their answers several times before their response was received.

We experimented and found that with all of the lights out, the students were able to click in much faster-approximately half the time it took when the lights were all on. We also tried clicking in with one or two (of three) banks of classroom lights turned off; in both situations students had an easier time of clicking in their answers than when all of the lights were turned on. Lastly, we tried repositioning t
he receiver. The best place for the receiver was where all kids were able to see it. The one thing that we found was that students had to be careful about pointing their clickers directly at the receiver rather than 45 degrees above it.