Digital Notebook in the Classroom

My son just entered into his Freshman year of high school. (Where has the time gone?? That’s another blog posting all together!) We relocated to Georgia roughly 7 weeks ago. The largest part of our moving decision was “where” to move was the high school. We interviewed (visited) several public high schools which showed up on the various “Best High Schools” lists. The reason I pointedly used the word “interviewed” was that we not only looked around each campus, but we dove into their curriculum and met with staff to determine the general feeling for the school. We found that a few of the schools which were advocating themselves as “STEM schools” really had very little change to the curriculum other than an “Intro to Computers” added. We really wanted a school that my son would wake up in the morning and say, “I can’t wait to go to school!”. (NOTE: For the purpose of this post, I’m only going to focus on the technology integration piece of the equation however there were a TON of other factors such as social clubs and extra curricular activities.)

We found the school which we believed to be “THE right one”. At the end of the day, it’s a leap of faith after all the research you put into it. Heck, at his last school, the administrator who brought STEM into my son’s previous K-8 district left. Thus, the district took two steps back! This high school has a track record over a longer period of time of producing results balanced with my son’s educational needs.

As I sit and type this posting, my dear wife is sitting with my son getting his backpack ready. They started last Thursday which gave the educators enough time to hand out their syllabi, grading scales and such. I’m finding it incredibly frustrating listening to them put together each “required” 2” binder for each class. They’re complete with tabbed sections including returned homework (for studying for tests), handouts and the likes. This is NOT the way I wanted him to get ready for school! For heaven’s sake, let’s leverage the technology which kids are used to using today rather than taking them back to an earlier era!

It’s not a secret that I work for Microsoft Education. We have some of the most AMAZING educational solutions to enable student learning! Let me walk you through the technologies which I’ve acquired and equipped my son to be able to leverage for his high school career.


  • Microsoft Surface Pro 2
  • HTC 8X Windows Phone (with Office Lens)


  • Windows 8.1
  • OneDrive
  • OneNote
  • Office 2013
  • My Study Life

In this post, I’ll go over the basic setup and the “whys” of the hardware and software. However, this is setting the foundation for student success in my opinion. The reason I chose the Surface Pro 2 was that it was a perfect backpack size tablet running full Windows 8.1 with digital ink. The HTC 8X Windows Phone was my old phone. Thus, he got a “hand me down” but it has communication and productivity features I believe he needs as a student and young adult.

I purchased my family a copy of Office 365 Home. This allows the entire family (up to 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets, and smartphones) to have a full installed copy of Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access). It also gives each family member 1 TB (5 users) of cloud storage (which can by synchronized for local access as well).

The last piece of the equation was a free Windows 8 app called My Study Life. This allows him to manage his class schedule visually, track tasks (homework assignments, revisions, etc.), store exams, and a notification function.

Let’s put all this together very quickly as a “day in the life” of a student (I’ll follow up with subsequent “how to” articles and videos on each). During Freshman Orientation, we received his class schedule. We converted this into 3 different work items:

1. My Study Life – Entered in each of his classes, rooms, and times.


2. OneNote – Entered in each class for his digital notebook for note taking


3. OneDrive – Creation of storage folders for each class


He gets to school, pulls out his Windows Phone to check which class and room he needs to be in via My Study Life. He walks into class and his teacher hands out the syllabus. Again, he pulls out his Windows Phone with Office Lens to snap digital copies of it for future reference. Part of Office Lens is the integration into OneNote. Thus, his Math syllabus gets saved into his OneNote section which we created (see #2 above). He pulls out his Surface Pro 2, opens OneNote and can either highlight or annotate notes on top of the syllabus or open a new page to take notes on with digital ink.

With the power of two devices and student enabled software, he can have a rich and immersive experience! Instead, for the moment, my wife is stuck with him labeling 2” binders so he can stuff them into his backpack! Curriculum night is this coming Thursday. I’m looking forward to having this exact discussion with them on the power and student enablement of technology. It should be a fun ride!

Technical Resources to Get You Going

One of the challenges of adopting, rolling out, and using technology into the classroom is the documentation or training. Let’s face it, this is one of the reasons I have my blog! However, I wanted to call attention to some great work that’s being done by Microsoft to publish content for IT Admins as well as classroom resources. Check out the FREE (yes, I said completely free!) eBooks from Microsoft. A couple of them which jump to the top of the list for me are:

  1. Windows 8.1 Deployment Planning – A Guide for Education
  2. Windows 8.1 Deployment to PCs – A Guide for Education
  3. Windows Store Apps – A Deployment Guide for Education
  4. Windows To Go – A Guide for Education
  5. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure – A Deployment Guide for Education
  6. BYOD Devices – A Deployment Guide for Education

As well as classroom  resources such as:

  1. Getting To Know Office 365
  2. How To Recover That Un-Saved Office Document
  3. Microsoft Word 2013 Quick Start Guide
  4. Word 2013 Keyboard Shortcuts
  5. Microsoft Excel 2013 Quick Start Guide
  6. Excel 2013 Keyboard Shortcuts
  7. Digital Storytelling
  8. Microsoft Office in the Classroom
  9. Developing Critical Thinking through Web Research Skills

The list keeps going and going… I had to cut myself off! Go to the main link above and enjoy all the free goodness!

Do you think students should have tablets in the classroom?

I was engaged in a conversation on the Facebook page “Waiting for Superman” ( which posed the question that is the title of this post. Wow! Where do I start? My initial response was to answer the question with another question…”Do you think students should have pencils in the classroom?” In my opinion, a tablet (which is just one form factor and the reason why I changed it to “device” in a later posting on that thread) or device is just another tool for a student to leverage.

It was interesting the responses I received. The initial one was, “…a pencil doesn’t have internet access…”. My quick witted response was something to the tune of why do you think a device needs to be connected? It seems like a lot of people make the leap that since someone has a device that it is connected and active at all times. This just isn’t the case. There’s another misconception that when a student gets bored that they’ll switch over to a game, social network / instant messenger, or work on something else. What’s the old school rule?? Ah yes, “…don’t run with scissors!”. We put boundaries or rules around the tools which we leverage. In the case of technology, there are ways to guide, limit, restrict, or block what’s going on given a certain device.

Now, working for Microsoft, I’m going to highlight some Microsoft technologies which can make classrooms more efficient. In the example above where students are working however a student might deviate from a given lesson or task, there are several paths which we may taken to get to this point:

  1. Is this a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or an institution asset?
  2. Does the task require internet access or an application (s) ?
  3. Is this self guided learning or direct instruction?

The list can go on however hopefully you can understand what I’m going after. There are a million things going on in a classroom at any given moment. As the Facebook thread proved, there are SO many “what if” scenarios to cover that it’d be impossible. My goal is to drive awareness of some features or capabilities which some might not be aware of, which Microsoft offers.

In the case of an “off task student”, there are a few ways to address that. There’s a nice video that goes into some of the variants which I described above that is addressed in Microsoft Windows Multipoint Server ( . The classroom educator has the ability to see what is happening on each students screen, redirect or modify their behavior, or even highlight a student’s work.

When lesson planning, there should always be a section of resources needed (i.e. Software application, computer equipment, video equipment, etc.). In fact, Microsoft has an entire host of resources for educators, students, and school leaders! For example, educators in the lesson planning phase can leverage resources found on this site: (Yes, Common Core is included on this site!)

Students (as well as educators because we’re all life long learners, right?) have access to a ton of resources as well. The student portal can be found here: However, that’s just the beginning! (In writing this blog entry, which has gone too long and off topic, I’ve found that I need to write separate blog entries on educator, student, and institution resources!) Students can sign up for Microsoft Dream Spark ( What is that, you ask? As taken from here, it’s all about giving students all of our developer and designer tools AT NO COST so they can go after their dreams and create the next big breakthrough in technology. Couple that with the Windows 8 app Programming Tutorials ( and they can start creating apps on Windows, iOS, Android, or whatever they want to go after!

Which brings me to my last thought and a glimpse into one of my experiences that I carry close to my heart and which drives me every single day. If you read the “A little about me…” post, you sort of have a sense of my background. However, I want to share an in between the lines story which happened to me one day while I working as the Director of Technology in a K-12 school district. This district is one of the poorest districts in the State of Illinois. I know this because I was able to leverage that statistic in order to write grants to fund the technology program there. I was a living case of being able to grow out of my childhood socioeconomic status to make a decent living by leveraging technology. Thus, I started a computer club in the high school in the district I was working.

My thought was that if I could expose students to technology which was in demand at that time in the marketplace; they too, could move out and beyond the community which they grew up in. As the year went on, I had a few students which were learning and growing. However, there was one conversation that I’ll never forget. I was speaking to one of the students, after school, about how much he had learned and how he could apply it to “life after high school”. From his perspective, the only way for him to move beyond his current situation was through sports. I told him that he could get a job after he graduates or even looking at college. He sat back in his chair and said, “…you just don’t get it, do you? I’ll either be dead or in prison by the time I’m 18.” I’ve carried those words with me for almost 20 years. I do it for him and other students like him…always.

Foundational Curriculum

I live in the Chicagoland area (actually, I grew up in the Chicagoland area and live right over the border in WI; however, it’s close enough!) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced in December 2013 that they’ll be teaming up with which provides free computer science curriculum and professional development for teachers (Please see the announcement and video here:,0,1134596.story). I believe Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated it fairly simply: just as “we” learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, our children need to learn foundational computer skills and core STEM fundamentals regardless of the field which they choose to go into.

I know there are some of you who do not embrace this thought and I’m okay with that. However, I believe we live in a different day and age. Such that, most children have access to technology in their home or within a community resource such as a public library. I’ve seen it first hand with my own children, when attending school they literally had to “unplug” their lives and learn as I did as a child. Some would argue, “…what’s wrong with that? The way I learned was good enough for me and it’ll be good enough for them””.” Well, I’m not going to fight the argument of “good enough”. There’s PLENTY of articles on how the US educational system if failing our future generation and we’re falling behind our peers worldwide.

Children, by nature, are inquisitive. Some have more motivation than others (i.e. using my own children as a reflection point). However, children today have ubiquitous access to knowledge far beyond to what I had to as a child. Case in point, my son is a Minecraft wizard! He LOVES it! So I gave him a challenge for the next six months. Learn to program Java. Simple enough and I gave him two resources; 1. and 2. Programming Tutorials (a Windows 8 app: The goal is to learn coding so he can create his own mod for Minecraft. If he achieves that, we’ll discuss sending him to a summer camp for Minecraft programming.

Two skills I’m attempting to engrain in him is ubiquitous access and self-guided learning. Just knowing that you have the potential to have access to anything really does nothing. Having access to a select set of resources however not having the ability to leverage those resources in a meaningful way is useless as well. Coupling those two disparate concepts become quite powerful when combined. Hopefully CPS will embrace these same changes ahead!

STEM: It’s not just about computers but holistic, engaged learning

For those in the technology and education fields (combined), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is an acronym you may be familiar with. For those of you who maybe be hit by a new TLA (three letter acronym), a good first step is to review what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about it. Now, allow me to go on the record to state that I am NOT a certified educator. My wife is certified as a classroom teacher and school counselor so you can only imagine the types of discussions we have at our dinner table! However, I believe being a technologist in the education field, as well as my background, has given me some insights which I wanted to articulate in this posting.

For those of you which trudged through my “A little about me” post, you know that for most of my lifetime have not been engaged in my own personal education. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a LOT! However, I can still recall doing the ole “book report” about the galaxy back in elementary school. If you were to ask me what I retained from doing that, I would tell you that it was the scribble picture of Saturn. On the flip side, my son was given an assignment for science on reporting on a specific oil spill which had happened. Each student had a different one and they were to present back to the class the facts which were learned according to the rubric. (I don’t even remember having rubrics when I was a student!!) My son was SO engaged in learning, modeling, and cramming all the facts which he had found regarding his spill that I had to draw the line and say he’d done enough. He would have easily put in another 8 to 10 hours into it willingly!

Why is his learning so different? Well, it could have easily been a book report and probably would have been in his previous school had we not open enrolled him to another school in the area (all public schools). However, this educator gave them a topic, outcomes, and said to get it done. (I was looking for her rubric to use as an example however this was last year.) The students knew that they had to present the facts back to the class (with structure such as the how, where, and when sort of things) but they could use whatever mode they were comfortable with. Such that, they could elect to write a paper, do a PowerPoint, or in the case of my son; model it out in Minecraft.

So, how is this one isolated science project lead to holistic learning? For starters, it required the discipline that we all practiced of researching the topic, having proper citable sources, and the likes (a language arts skill typically). However, he then needed to map out where the spill took place (a social studies topic, if you will) so that he could map it. Upon his choice of Minecraft, the obvious computer skills to create the world. In addition, he had enough forethought to know he didn’t like presenting and speaking in front of a group. Thus, he created a narrated video which he could play for the class. I could keep pining and droning about his work; the different areas of the traditional studies which it drew from however I’m confident you understand my point. In the end, he made a quality project which he took ownership in that learning experience. (By the way, his video can be viewed here. Barge Cibro Savannah Oil Spill)

The difference in experience of when I went to school versus my son, is all about the approach to learning, in my opinion. In the 70’s and 80’s (1900’s, just for the record!) when I was in primary education, it was all about the vessel of knowledge (educator) and imparting that knowledge to the students. Most of the time is was dry. That’s probably why there’s the phrase, “…you need to have a THIRST for knowledge!” My son, on the other hand, has ubiquitous access to probably any topic he’d want in a few key strokes. Want to know how to program? Go to Want to learn a new language? Fire up Rosetta Stone! In my opinion, it’s now become a collection of knowledge which we need to guide our children through.

The next piece of the puzzle is how do we motivate and keep our children engaged? There’s a school of thought (no pun intended) called gamification. Taking a task (sometimes mundane) and turn it into a contest or game. Come on now, we’ve had spelling bees forever! This, if done correctly, personalizes the experience based off of the learner. I had the pleasure of hearing Jan McGonigal speak when Microsoft brought her in as a speaker for us. She did a WONDERFUL presentation which really got me thinking about this. In fact, she did a TedTalk titled, “Gaming can make a better world” which was fairly similar to the talk we heard.

In the end, powering learners with the current tools necessary to achieve the task at hand as well as making it relevant to connect with them at a personal level are key factors in engaged learning. In my personal opinion, teaching “subjects” (i.e. math, social studies, etc.) is or should be a thing of the past. Being able to grasp from different disciplines in order to accomplish a task in a holistic manner is far more effective than isolating out a singular concept. Thus, I believe the concept of STEM being able to bridge and pull different concepts together into an engaged learning model.

Setting Up the Virtual Classroom

A new school year is upon us! I remember when my wife was a classroom teacher… we would bring the boxes of supplies to her classroom, set up her bulletin boards, and arrange things so they’d be “just perfect” for her incoming class. I, on the other hand, would be working all summer getting ready for those educators to come in and use whatever I had been implementing. I’d be getting ready for the in-service workshops, creating the new accounts for the incoming freshmen class (of students and teachers), and making sure all the bases were covered.

That’s sort of how it is around my blog right now. I’m just getting things set up. Making sure I like the theme, getting the menus “just right”, and all of that. Are there going to be mistakes and changes as this evolves? Darn right there is! You can EXPECT that! Mistakes are how we grow professionally and as a person. If we always got it right the first time, life wouldn’t be as fun!

Reach out to me with your ideas, feedback, and comments! That’s what this is all about! Let’s grow this together!

A little about me…

I’m going to attempt to make this as brief as possible, but for any of those who know me or have heard me publically speak before, you know that I tend to ramble and tell stories. However, I thought this would be a GREAT way for those of you getting to know me to understand my background and how I got to where I’m at today.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as a child. My father was a carpenter during the summers and did HVAC in the winters when he was laid off due to lack of work in construction. My mother, from what I recall, worked evenings cleaning offices and what not. We lived a suburban blue collar family life…and it was great! Flashlight tag and endless summer nights running around the neighborhood with friends. Not a care in the world.

It wasn’t until my parents divorced, when I was 9 or 10, that my childhood took on a different direction and shaped me to what I am today. I lived with my mother which is a proud Italian. She never wanted to admit the fact, or at least show it as a parent, that we were poor. We moved every year from apartment complex to apartment complex. Each year, we progressively moved down the socio-economic food chain. She worked several jobs just to provide for us. We couldn’t afford the brand name labels but she always did the best that she could. As an adult looking back, I am eternally grateful. As a child, I’ll always remember not being part of the “in crowd” and living in government assisted housing.

I started programming when I was a sophomore in high school. I did all different types of languages such as RPG, Cobol, Assembler, Basic, and Ada. I tend to think of my age group as the first wave of structured programmers going through the public educational system. I was a mediocre student at best. I was “middle of the pack; not really excelling at any given subject. Ironically, math was a subject which I struggled with the most. Was I just a modest student which did enough to get by or was I just not engaged in my learning?

As I look back, I recall some of my classmates going down to their guidance counselors to speak about college. However, I don’t have any memories of having those conversations with mine. Was it that I knew or my counselor knew that I wasn’t “college material” or couldn’t afford college? I never really thought of college because I knew I nor my mother could afford it. None the less, I graduated 1002 out of a class of over 2000 in 1985.

Now that I was out of school, I needed to shoulder my weight in the household. My father got me a construction job as a manual laborer. I did that for a year but I knew in my heart that this wasn’t my destiny in life. I worked with a guy who was a Marine in Beirut. We spoke a lot over lunch about his life as a U.S. Marine. In 1986, I enlisted into the United States Marine Corps.

I wasn’t in the Marines to gain any tangible skills. Heck, I shot things and blew things up being part of an infantry unit. The skills which I learned as a Marine was the motivation, drive and discipline which was inside of me. They honed and worked these muscles until they had laser precision. I wanted to make this my career until during my second enlistment I was discharged medically.

With my “new found skills”, I returned back home and went to college. Looking back at what I enjoyed, I pursued a degree in Computer Science and Criminal Justice. An odd combination, don’t you think? Not for me! I enjoyed how computers had evolved and the notion of “protect and serve” a community was a noble cause I drew from as a Marine. These skills would take me on a journey towards a life goal of going to law school for computer software patent law.

As I did my undergrad, I gravitated more and more to the computer lab where I spent hours coding and thinking about structured programming in C and C++. I spent two years in downstate Illinois at Western Illinois University and then returned home to finish up my degree at Northeastern Illinois University. However, my “second two years” took me ten earth years. You see, life happens. I worked in various public school districts over those years, taking on larger and more challenging roles during the day and attending college at night. What I found is that I was doing some really bleeding edge stuff during the day only to return to an institution which was teaching archaic stuff at night. Again, I found myself not engaged in my learning and doing what I needed to do to obtain a piece of paper; in this case, it was a bachelor’s degree. It was a means to an end.

Knowing that I wasn’t getting what I needed in a formal institution, I started learning on my own and blazing that trail. I was working on Apple computers, NeXT computers, Novell networks and working on a new kid on the block called Microsoft. During the 90’s, Novell ruled educational networks but this Microsoft thing had me intrigued. So I took on the challenge to learn more about it. I received my first certifications under Windows 3.5 and TCP/IP.

From a career perspective, I went from a central office clerk, to a high school technology technician, to a director of technology for a K-12 district and one of the first webmasters for the Illinois State Board of Education. It was working within education which I found my passion! It wasn’t just about learning but how technology could changes one’s life! When I was a director in the K-12 district, it was one of the poorest districts in the State of Illinois. I related to these kids! I knew what it was like struggling at home but still trying to go to school to get to a better place in your life. I was living proof! I was learning by leaps and bounds as well as a career and salary to prove it!

That’s when the second light bulb went on. Not only did I enjoy technology but I loved sharing my knowledge! I looked forward to the staff development training days where I had educators learning about ways to integrate technology into the classroom. I engaged and mentored students on how learning, inside and outside of the classroom, could get them ahead in life. That’s when I started doing more public speaking, pursued and obtained my Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), and wrote technical / taught curriculum.

The “classroom” hasn’t been kind to me over the years. Now I found myself challenged as a trainer. I was delivering 3 to 5 day classes or even taking these classes and being overwhelmed by information! You know it if you’ve ever been to a week long class! By the third day your nodding off! That’s when I decided to flip the classroom and allow the learner to be in charge of their own learning; much like I had done over the course of my career thus far. You see, it’s not about how much information you can retain at any given moment in time but the ability to have “just in time” knowledge to address what’s happening in your life at any given moment. So, I started a task-based, online video training company called

At that point in my career, I had become a Microsoft MVP (Most Valued Professional) and thought leader in systems management. Life was good! I was consulting, free lancing, had a successful online company….what more could I ask for??!! Remember the part about me being a Marine? Yeah…. well, I don’t sit still for very long! I started to question all that I had done and what could I do better? I could either work implementing solutions for Microsoft or I could work for Microsoft.

Fast forward: I worked within Microsoft for my first 5 years or so within the corporate enterprise accounts space. I received awards such as Top Gun, Microsoft Insiders and such, wrote a book, designed and worked on a team for a solution accelerator but I was always doing volunteer work in schools. I enjoyed working in schools! So, when the opportunity opened to work on the US Education Team at Microsoft, I was there! (…and still am there!)

So, how does this story all tie together? If you’re still with me, there’s some personal lessons from my life that I draw from every day. Students learn in various ways, traditional and non-traditional. My son, for example, is not your traditional student. (Did I forget to mention I got married and had two kids along the way in this journey?!) I use a blended approach with him. He, like myself, is very much a geek. What gets him engaged is the use of technology. We’ve enrolled our children at a progressive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) school which allows the students to produce work projects in various modes. My daughter, on the other hand, is very much a “traditional” student and self motivated. She excels at the typical classroom and board work which has been the mode for years. I believe if we get children invested and engaged in their learning early, they will succeed. Using the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) approach and just in time blended learning is becoming more and more embraced. (Think about how we learned area of a rectangle in math. “You’re pouring concrete and you need to know how much concrete you’ll need” versus “You’re constrained to a creating a Minecraft world of a certain area”. I hated “pouring concrete” but I’m sure if I was a kid now, I’d be all over that Minecraft world! That’s WIIFM in a nutshell.) Sir Ken Robinson has one of my all time favorite videos which he covers how we need to change the educational paradigms. From my perspective and journey as a life long learner, this is the foundations and why I do what I do. Smile