Friday, September 27, 2013

Running Digital Signage through Google Apps EDU - UPDATE

In the world of technology everything changes and changes quickly. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. And in our case, what worked for our digital signage last school year doesn't work any longer this school year or so we thought.

Originally, we had been using Auto Refresh Plus to automatically refresh our Chrome browser at set intervals. Then Google changed the way Google Presentation operates and each slide became its own URL which reset Auto Refresh Plus every time the slide changed!

After a bit of aggravation and brainstorming, we figured out a new solution. My band teacher and fellow tech enthusiast came across the following blog,, that had the same issues we were having. Their solution was to embed the presentation in a website and using the script provided it would update the frame at set intervals.

We thought this would work for us as well UNTIL we realized that our school website does not allow us to remove the header or column. Therefore, we had had to figure out a Plan B.

After some brainstorming, the idea hit us. Why not write the code in Notepad, save the file as a HTML file, upload it to the district website as the HTML file, and then create a GOTO link to the file. It'll automatically open it in full screen through kiosk mode and read the file like an HTML page. The code will allow us to embed the Google Presentation and run the reload script.

It sounds way more complicated than it actually was and it works as good as ever. I now have my clerical staff in the office updating the Google Presentation for me throughout the day and the script refreshes the presentation every 10 minutes.

So after several days of confusion and frustration, everything is right with the world again and our digital signage is working like a pro.

The next step is to get another setup installed in our cafeteria!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Running Digital Signage through Google Apps EDU

A few months ago, I had a goal in mind and set off to figure out how to harness Google's capabilities to create low budget, easy to use digital signage for my high school. Ultimately, I wanted to run daily announcements including upcoming events, sports scores, photos of class projects, reminders, lunch menus, etc. etc. etc. on a flat screen TV in our main lobby.

At first, the trick was getting everyone else to understand and support my goal. I spoke to several colleagues in neighboring districts and all had purchased fairly expensive presentation software to run their signage off of networked Mac Minis. That was too much for us. I wanted something simple, something cheap, and something repurposed.

This week, I got one step closer to my goal. We purchased a flat screen TV that was versatile enough to meet my needs and well as future needs down the road. We were able to repurpose a computer tower that could be used for my greeter as well as the TV. The next step was setting up Google Apps to run the presentation.

It took most of the day with a little investigative Googling, brainstorming with interested staff, and a few attempts and reattempts, but it is coming together.

That being said, here are a few tips/tricks I learned along the way.

Going Wide Screen! 
If you are going to run Google Presentation on a wide screen TV, you'll want your presentation to match. To get started, create the first few slides in Microsoft PowerPoint. If you go to Design followed by Page Setup and then On Screen Show 16:9 and you'll be able to change the aspect ration from 4:3 to 16:9. Once you have this set up, upload your PowerPoint to Google Drive. Once in Drive, simply duplicate each slide to create matching slides.

Go to your Home!
Originally we embedded the Google Presentation on the high school website, set the slide transition time, and set the presentation to loop. It worked, but we came up with an even better idea. Rather than embedding the presentation, we created a "Go To" link from the website that would automatically link directly to the presentation link.

At first, we were concerned that we would be able to manually adjust the slide transition timing. However, by adjusting the number in bold above we could easily adjust the timing (6500 = 6.5 second per slide). Just make sure you make this adjustment in the link that you post on your website.

Automatic Updates
The next task is actually two-fold. Google Apps is great in the fact that changes are automatically saved to your "living" document. However, a Google Presentation will not automatically refresh while playing forcing the user to manually refresh the browser to load updates, or so we thought. This is where a little brainstorming and Google driven investigation/research came into play. First we had to figure out how to get the browser to automatically refresh. A quick Google search lead us to Auto Refresh Plus, which is a Chrome Extension found in the Chrome Web Store. It's a quick and easy install that can be done without administrator rights (bonus!). Auto Refresh Plus allows you to set the refresh rate for the Chrome Browser; it also allows you to set a designated amount of time and start whenever a particular URL is loaded. Make sure you make the appropriate adjustments in the Options Settings or the following setup won't work!

We set our system to run whenever the browser went to presentation link, which would refresh every 15 minutes. We could still manually refresh if we wanted, but we figured 15 minutes was sufficient for our needs.

Keep in mind, the presentation will jump back to the beginning whenever the browser refreshes regardless of where it is in the presentation. Based on our setup, this will happen once every 15 minutes and we doubt anyone will notice anyway.

Auto Refresh in Full Screen?!
This next step (part II of our two-fold problem) is what threw us off a bit. We discovered that Auto Refresh Plus kept kicking our presentation out of full screen. This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. We could have left the presentation in regular mode with the address bar sticking out like a sore thumb, but we knew there had to be a better way.

Enter Kiosk Mode. Did you even know that there is a Kiosk Mode? I didn't either - until today! Let's see if I can explain this as simply as possible:

  1. Copy the Chrome Browser Icon on your Desktop and Paste it back to the Desktop. 
  2. Rename the second Icon to whatever you want. 
  3. Right Click the Icon and go to Properties
  4. In Target you will find the code extension to run Chrome. At the end of that code write --Kiosk followed by the link to your presentation 
C:\Users\Liquidsnowman\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\Application\chrome.exe --Kiosk>present/d/1-u8vVnBPy1yxggcCuU6TTZkY83gmpYnBtfxw2BqkW-w/pub?start=true&loop=true&delayms=6500#slide=id.p16

Doing this will allow the user to launch the link in Kiosk Mode, which means the presentation will be in full screen mode and all buttons will be hidden from sight. This is great if you want to run a presentation on a device without granting other users access to options such as searching, home, bookmarks, etc.

This will also allow the full screen presentation to automatically refresh using Auto Refresh Plus without dropping out of full screen!

In Summation
This may seem like a lot of work, but the above tips and tricks will save you a day of wrestling with the system. In all actuality, it took us under an hour to figure out everything I mentioned above. As any school day, that hour happened to be stretched out across most of the day.

Tomorrow, we'll swap out the greeter's computer tower, set the system up for dual screens, and launch the application. I'm hoping that we can add the Kiosk Icon to the startup menu so that it will launch automatically without the greeter having to manually click on the icon.

In total, this system cost us a TV. We repurposed a computer and obviously Google is free.

Now I just need to train my front office on how to use Google Presentation and we'll be all set!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ending the Radio Silence

It's been nearly a year since I've gone anywhere near this blog. Admittedly, work had worn me out and I wasn't nearly as driven as I had once been. We've all been there at one point or another and we all know what impact that can have on everything around us.

Nevertheless, I made a rather profound career change in December. I left the world of tech integration, professional development, and classroom teaching to take on a position as an Assistant Principal in a nearby high school. And although my role did not explicitly involved tech integration, I have quickly found myself back in the forefront.

Prior to arriving, the district lacked any and all wireless access points in either of its two buildings. Nearly every teacher had an interactive whiteboard in the classroom with two full computer labs in the high school as well as two additional labs in the tech ed. classroom as well as the art room. Unfortunately, the district also had a rather strict network filter, which hindered teachers from accessing countless resources.

After getting a feel for the building and my new surroundings, I started laying the ground work for a few initiatives that I had in mind.

Laying the Foundation | Edmodo 
You always have to start with some sort of foundation and Edmodo was going to be our foundation. After introducing the concept during a staff meeting, I had several teachers who were interested in testing out its capabilities. In the first few weeks, I had a handful of teachers rolling out Edmodo with one or two class periods as they got acclimated to the process. Within a month, I started to see more and more growth. Nearly three months in, we've had over 3,500 hits; half the building (staff and students) currently have active accounts. In the past three days alone, students have visited their courses 250 times which is over 83 times a day. Imagine what September will look like when teachers are able to start the school year off with Edmodo in hand?!

I have teachers using Edmodo with their classes. I have coaches using Edmodo with their teams. I have committees setting up Edmodo to share resources. I even have district administrators collaborating through Edmodo!

One recommendation that I have always told other districts - set up a district-specific sub-domain through Edmodo. IT IS FREE! Each building in your district will be provided with an unique pass code to ensure the safety and security of your internal professional learning community. It also allows the system administrator to track usage, change forgotten passwords, and send out district/building wide messages directly through Edmodo. It's definitely worth it and highly, highly, highly recommended.

Filling in the Gaps
Once I had a foundation in place, I needed content. I needed STUFF! Having come from a professional development background, I had a plethora of resources sitting in my back pocket. Lucky for me, New York State Computers and Technology in Education (NYSCATE) had a regional conference coming up. It was time to advertise! Of course, being on the planning committee and facilitating a workshop at the conference had absolutely nothing to do with the push to build attendance. Never. Who would do such a thing.

Nearly a dozen of my staff, including the building principal attending the conference on a Saturday nevertheless. Every single one of them will tell you that it was well worth it. The conference was broken down into a series of one-hour workshops that were facilitated by local tech minded educators, leaders, and in some cases, students. Participants got to see what people were using in their classrooms, how they were using them, and why they were using them. My faculty all walked away with a number of ideas and resources that they could bring back to their classrooms.

I was thoroughly impressed in the weeks that followed the conference when I stopped by various classes to see the teachers incorporating what they learned with their classes. I was even more impressed when I found my teachers turn-keying what they learned and sharing that knowledge with their colleagues.

Making Strides
My building has made some serious headway in just a few short months. Nevertheless, we still have a ways to go. Just this week, we made some drastic changes to the district's filtering settings and removed a number of restrictions that had been hindering classroom teachers.

We will be installing a wireless network system this summer providing full coverage for our two buildings.

We have a BYOD draft policy sitting in the wings.

We are reviewing Google Apps for Education as a possible district-wide solution.

We're rolling out a STEM Academy starting with next year's incoming freshman class.

Teaching in a wired world has taken on a whole new meaning. In actuality, it's taken on it's true meaning. For so many years I always spoke of integrating district and/or building wide initiatives; now I actually get to facilitate real initiatives and develop these programs alongside my staff and students. We've done quite a bit in just a few months; I can't wait to see where the next school year takes us!