Oculus Rift First Impressions – The Unwind Soundbyte

On The Unwind Podcast, two friends and I discuss topics related to tech, games, gadgets, and geek culture each week. Here is a soundbyte where we talk about my first impressions of the Oculus Rift, the upcoming virtual reality headset. I’ve had a couple of weeks to play around with the second iteration of the Development Kit, and Shawn and Josiah have also given it a spin. Check out what we have to say about it.

If you enjoy this clip, please subscribe to us on iTunes or Stitcher or listen to our shows on the Commentist Bloc Network website.

Will the Surface 3 Become the “iPad Killer”? – The Unwind Soundbyte

On The Unwind Podcast, two friends and I discuss topics related to tech, games, gadgets, and geek culture each week. Here is a soundbyte where we talk about the newly announced Microsoft Surface 3 and whether it challenge the dominance of the iPad. This is an extension of my post about whether the Surface 3 can replace the iPad in the classroom.

If you enjoy this clip, please subscribe to us on iTunes or Stitcher or listen to our shows on the Commentist Bloc Network website.

Turning Public Data into Public Knowledge – SxSW Panel Audio


In March, I was invited to participate in a panel on the topic of Turning Public Data into Knowledge at SxSW EDU in Austin, TX. The purpose of the panel was for three Local Education Funds (Achieve Hartford!, Newark Trust for Education, and Jacksonville Public Education Fund) to present on the data tools they designed to provide the public with education related data. As the project lead for SMARTERHartford, I discussed how the project came about, how we leveraged partnerships with community organizations, and how we are using the tool to drive a deeper conversation around data analysis at the Hartford district level. SMARTERHartford provides parents with a mapping tool that allows users to search for what school options are available to them, and provides data tools to compare those school choices, helping them be more informed consumers. You can find the audio from our panel discussion above.

Why the New Surface 3 Just Might Replace the iPad in Classrooms

The term “iPad killer” gets thrown around pretty frequently these days, but the newly announced Surface 3 has a pretty good shot to be the device to take that title.


Previously, Microsoft had two versions of their Surface tablets, the Pro, which ran with full Windows, and RT, which ran a much more slimmed down version of Windows and, while it came with Office, couldn’t run most Windows applications outside of what was on their incredibly bare app store. RT was a disaster, and Microsoft acknowledged that with the announcement of the Surface 3.


At an entry point of $499 (the same as the iPad Air 2), the Surface 3, which releases in May, comes with the full Windows 8.1 operating system and will get a free Windows 10 upgrade when it becomes available later in 2015. While many schools currently opt to go with the iPad or Chromebook for the classroom, the Surface 3 will likely become a major competitor. Here’s a quick breakdown:



iPad Air 2

Surface 3


Base Price




Operating System


Windows 8.1 (Full)

Chrome OS

Base Storage

16 GB

64 GB



App Store

All Windows Applications

Browser Apps

Document Editing

 Pages, Office apps (Limited), Apple suite

Office (Full)

Google Docs, Office Online


Wireless Keyboard/Keyboard Cover (Sold separately)

Surface Keyboard Cover (Sold separately)

Built into Laptop


While it will be very compelling to integrate the Office suite of apps and OneDrive capabilities into teaching practice, the Surface 3 will need the accompanying keyboard ($129.99) and probably pen ($49.99) to take full advantage. Granted, iPad still has the best marketplace for education apps geared for tablet use, the Surface 3 will have all Windows based applications available. Speaking as someone who has owned every Surface device released so far, I can say that the Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3 were the devices that Microsoft has been aiming for. Microsoft hasn’t done the best job at marketing towards teachers and schools in the past, but hopefully they see education as a market to focus on with the release of this new device.

A Microsoft Fanboy Tries the iPhone 6, Part 2: Am I Blue??

Am I Blue??

I have to say, my initial experience (well pre-experience) with Apple was almost enough to turn me off to this whole experiment altogether.

I went to the AT&T store, who informed me they were sold out and there was a week or longer wait. So I tried the Apple store. There was a line outside the store waiting for an iPhone. The thing released over a month ago, and there are still lines. I sure as hell never had to wait for a Windows Phone. I could rock up to the AT&T store the afternoon of a WP release and have no worries about getting one. I didn’t even have to wait on the line, however, because there wasn’t any stock of the 64gb model for AT&T anyway. I asked to back order/reserve one when it came in, but Apple doesn’t let you do that. You just have to show up every day until they happen to have one in stock. Ridiculous.

I almost decided to call it quits on this whole experiment, but gave it one more roll of the dice and went to Best Buy. As if it was meant to be, they hadtext2 gotten a shipment in only minutes before I arrived, and I was able to secure one. The girl helping me buy it asked what I was switching from.

“Windows Phone.”

She looked at me for a second, “Seriously??” – as if she’d never actually seen someone use one before. I’m used to this reaction though, and it felt like a fitting way to go out.

As she was taking my information, I already felt like a sheep. Everyone and their mother (mine included, Hi Mom!) has an iPhone. I’m no longer the different one that stands out with a Windows Phone. As I was about to leave, a guy decided to buy a low end Windows Phone. She gave him a sideways glance and said under her breath, “He wants a Windows Phone?!?”. I was a little offended, but at that point, I could no longer say I was a Windows Phone user anymore anyway.

I got back home and took it out of the box, again marveling at just how sleek and light this device is. I created an iCloud account (I’m probably the only one that used a Hotmail account to sign up), and I was off. I didn’t tell too many people about making my switch, so it was fun seeing some of the reactions of iPhone friends realizing I was on iMessage for the first time. Those who were aware of this coming switch I sent, “Am I blue??”. For those of you not familiar with iMessage, messages sent to other iPhone users show up in blue, while all other phones are sent in green. Those in on my experiment also knew that switching to an iPhone could cause me to fall into depression (I think I’m clever at least).


People had a hard time believing I was using an iPhone. (My messages got deleted when I exchanged the phones, that’s why it’s from their perspective.)

I only had the phone for a few minutes before I got back to back calls, so it wasn’t until later in the evening that I had a chance to really play around with it. Before long, I realized that there was a single dead pixel in the middle of the screen. I had always been one to make fun of the “Genius” bar, so I figured it was time to see what it was all about. My iPhone wielding friend advised me to set up an appointment through the phone app, which I will admit, is pretty cool despite the fact I think it’s insane you have to set an appointment and can’t just go there and get help whenever (*ahem* like the Microsoft Store *cough cough*).

I set the appointment for the following morning and when I got there, checked in and was soon seen by a “Genius”. He informed me that I would actually have to exchange it where I purchased the phone, so I made my way back to Best Buy. I had no issue exchanging for a new phone (thankfully they had one left in stock), although the process ended up taking around an hour due to their slow systems (You would think Best Buy would have decent computers for their Point of Sale systems…). I talked them into giving me a discount for a screen protector, and got the glass Zagg Invisible Shield. I’ve been super careful with the phone, so I can’t vouch for how well it protects the iPhone screen, but the phone seems just as responsive with the screen protector on it.

I had all of the next day, Sunday, free, so I finally got some quality time with my device.

Coming up on Part 3 – Switching Over and Initial impressions

Does the Microsoft Band Hold Up to Initial Impressions?: One Week Review

It’s been a little over a week now of daily use with the Microsoft Band, and many of my initial impressions are still holding true.

The biggest criticism that I’ve seen about the Microsoft Band has come from the fit and size of the wearable device. Coming from someone who has never worn a watch or a wrist wearable, I can honestly say that the fit, for the most part, has not bothered me too much. Granted, I don’t have any point of reference, like a standard watch or a Fitbit, to compare that to, but I’ve been wearing the Band pretty much nonstop and I haven’t noticed it much. Every once in a while the sensor on the inside of the band “sticks” a bit to my wrist, and I catch myself shifting the Band’s position or loosening the clasp a bit. This may be enough to put some people off altogether, but it’s usually something I’m not even conscious of. I did have an issue where one of the cuff of my dress shirt was tough to fit around the Band and had to leave the cuffs unbuttoned to accommodate for the extra bulk on my wrist. It’s also difficult to check notifications when the Band is underneath a dress shirt, unless I wore it at the top of my wrist closest to my hand. While the same problem would come with wearing a traditional watch, I don’t suspect smaller wearables, like the Jawbone or Fitbit would have the same issue.

Since the screen isn't curved to match your wrist, it protrudes slightly.

Since the screen isn’t curved to match your wrist, it protrudes slightly.

The other main critique in most reviews is battery life. Again, this comes down to what you’re looking for in a device. A lot of fitness wearables will get you 5-7 days of battery life, but with less features, while smartwatches tend to need nightly charging, and gives you more features. I’ve used the Band nonstop since picking it up, and have only received a low battery warning once during that time. I charge it when I’m taking showers and getting ready for work or bed, maybe an hour a day, and it rarely dips below 60%. That said, I haven’t used the built in GPS (it’s been way too cold out recently), which I heard drains the battery much more quickly. The Band charges super fast as well. After receiving the low battery warning, I put the Band on the charger and it was back up to 80% in less than an hour. For my lifestyle, this infrequent charging has worked out great, but if you travel often or you’re looking for a device that you don’t have to worry about charging for days at a time, the Band is probably not for you.

I can’t speak fully on how durable the hardware is, as I have yet to forcefully whack it against anything. Wearing the screen on the inside of your wrist as it is intended makes it much less susceptible to impact. I have hit it on a tabletop or two, but there aren’t any scratches on the device. Microsoft also gives a free screen protector with the Band to help prevent dings and scratches. I did purchase the insurance policy for $20, which replaces the device should anything damage it, which, in my opinion, is a pretty good deal considering it’s meant to be worn while exercising.

A lot of the features and software, including what is still lacking, I already discussed in my initial impressions, so I won’t repeat them here as they still hold true. The only difference is that since purchasing the Band, I picked up an iPhone. Outside of not having access to Cortana, which I found marginally useful anyway, the experience is the same, and I suspect this holds true with Android devices as well.

How has the Band impacted my life?

As I mentioned at the end of my initial impressions, simply the act of having and using a fitness tracker changes the way I go about my day to day life. Having tangible metrics surrounding my health, like the number of calories I’ve burned in a day compared to a daily goal, has prompted me to be a lot more active, whether that is exercising more or just getting up from the computer to roam around every so often. I try to make it to the gym a couple of times a week, but now I have also adopted a quick 7-15 minute workout for my off gym days.

Pairing Microsoft Health with myfitnesspal allows you to track calories consumed and expended throughout the day.

Pairing Microsoft Health with myfitnesspal allows you to track calories consumed and expended throughout the day.

Not only am I tracking how many steps I’ve taken and calories I’ve burned, but being able to track sleep has made me think much differently about my daily habits, although it would still be super useful for the Microsoft Health app to make recommendations rather than me guessing about how to make improvements.

Maybe it’s the nerd in me, but this experience of tracking steps, calories, and sleep has also inspired me to start collecting as many data points on my life as I can.

I paired the Microsoft Health app with the myfitnesspal app, which allows you to track how many calories you eat. While this may not be 100% accurate as it’s hard to sometimes judge serving sizes (I’m not at the point where I’m measuring out how many cups of cereal I eat in the morning) and calories in homemade meals, the built in bar scanner lets me take a pretty good stab at it. The calories you burn in working out are automatically input into the myfitnesspal app, so you can get an overall picture of daily net calories. The app also helps you with goal setting and weight tracking as well. I would love to see more of these partnerships as Microsoft Health grows. Unrelated to health, I’ve also started tracking how I utilize my time throughout the day to see when I’m most/least productive. While the Band doesn’t help me with this specifically, the metrics surrounding the Band has inspired me to make universal changes in my life.

Aside from health benefits, having notifications on my wrist has drastically reduced the number of times I check my phone while I’m driving. Since I drive with my hand on the top of the wheel, it’s much safer and quicker for me just to glance down at my wrist then to pick up and look at my phone. In fact, this is the only time I wear the screen on the outside of my wrist, as trying to read a horizontal screen without being a contortionist is extremely difficult. Since I have an obsessive compulsive need to check notifications as soon as I get them, I find it to be a lot less obtrusive to glance at my wrist than whip out my phone while I’m in a conversation with someone, although some people might find both actions to be rude anyway.

Conclusion – Should you buy the Band?

I stand by my initial conclusions as to who the Band is right for, and who is better off picking up a different fitness tracker or smartwatch.

If you’re not currently using some kind of fitness tracker, do yourself a favor and pick one up.

While some people might not want to get into all of the data heavy tracking that I did, it would be hard for me to believe that by using one, you won’t see some kind of positive impact in your health. The Band may be too much or too little for your specific use, and there are plenty of options available now and upcoming in the near future to suit everyone’s needs.

The Band (and other fitness wearables for that matter) would make a great holiday gift for everyone from casual gym goers to fitness enthusiasts to those wanting to start exercising more – providing you can find one in stock. From what I hear, the Band is still in short supply (at the time of writing, the online Microsoft Store didn’t have any size available to purchase and my local retail store were still backordered). Don’t spend more than the retail $200, as I believe that’s the sweet spot for this device.

Most of us can stand to live healthier lives, and fitness tracking devices are a great way to receive some meaningful feedback to allow us to make positive changes. The Microsoft Band isn’t right for everyone, and there are still many improvements that can be made, but it is a solid device with a range of features that can go a long way into making an impact on your daily health.

A Microsoft Fanboy Tries the iPhone 6, Part 1: My Experiment with the Dark Side

My love, Microsoft

I’ve been a diehard Windows Phone (WP) and Microsoft (MS) fan for years now, so much so that it’s become part of my identity. You tend to stand out with a WP these days – in fact, I can’t think of one person I know personally who doesn’t own an iPhone or Android phone now (besides my Aunt, who got WP after me raving about it). I always get really excited when I see a WP in the wild. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve defended my WPs though. Despite the fact that a lot of people like the live tile look, many didn’t even know what Windows Phones were up until recently. Those who know now are quick to criticize that there aren’t the same apps, which I’ll admit, since I don’t really know what I’m missing, that hasn’t been a big issue for me.

I’m not going to lie to you, there have been plenty of times when I felt some jealousy – hardware, the lure of always getting the newest apps, etc.

Throughout all of that, I’ve felt this weird sense of brand loyalty.

I’ve always been quick to upgrade to the latest device and software, always staunchly defending Microsoft, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the Surface Pro 3 is by far my choice device of tablet/laptops available right now, but it took me using a Surface RT, Surface Pro, Surface 2, and Surface Pro 2 to get there. I stuck with Xbox One despite the fact the PS4 clearly was the better option for the price (I eventually ended up getting a PS4 anyway because all of my friends went that route). I’ve been an early adopter with the software as well, from Windows 7/8/8.1, Office365, OneDrive, and with the developer previews on Windows Phones.

At the end of the day, what has MS really repaid that loyalty with? They never seem to deliver on promises and are way late getting essential apps and services to come to the platform. I’ve paid $100s more for hardware than if I had waited a matter of weeks after new releases, although that’s pretty common with early adopters. There aren’t nearly enough cross platform (Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox) services and apps as I would like, but that’s supposedly coming in Windows 10. So I’ve been saying that Windows Phone 10 will be my last chance for MS to convince me to keep a Windows Phone. By most accounts, that won’t be released until later in the year in 2015, meaning I have a good 6-12 months before I see a flagship Windows Phone 10 device. My Lumia 920 is starting to show its age by seriously lagging to get basic things done, so I need something to tide me over until then.


Lumia 830

Since there isn’t a new high end flagship on the market from MS this holiday (the HTC One M8 for Windows is nice, but I’m not going to use my bi-yearly mobile upgrade on a phone with year old hardware), my initial thought was to buy the Lumia 830 outright and save my mobile upgrade until the 940 or whatever MS decides to call it comes out. One of the nice things about Apple is that you pretty much always know when the next iPhone will be released. MS (who acquired Nokia) hasn’t really told us when to expect this kind of device, and there aren’t any rumors about one on the horizon. I went to the store to play with the 830, and while I love the form factor of that device (finally something decently slim and light), testing it out didn’t prove to be any faster than my old 920.

This was really disappointing. That same day, I was in Best Buy and decided to look at other phones.

What ultimately put me over the edge was the first time I picked up the iPhone 6. Good God is that a sexy phone.

Coming from using a Lumia 920, the iPhone 6 feels like a feather, is razor sharp thin, and the display is mind-blowingly gorgeous. My friends have been trying to get me to switch over for years, but I’ve always preferred the look of live tiles over the icons of Android and iOS. Everything seemed to be adding up though, and this was the first time I actually felt compelled to take the plunge.

My biggest hesitation from switching, though, has been that I am just entrenched in the Microsoft ecosystem. Not to say that’s a bad thing. I really like Xbox Music, OneDrive, Office, and OneNote, and I didn’t want to give those up and have to find replacements and migrate all of that to new services. In a timely post, Tom Warren put out an article that morning on The Verge outlining how Microsoft services like Office and Xbox Music are actually better on iOS and Android devices. So after much deliberation and a mini-freakout of trying to figure out whether I was being delirious/trying to figure out who I am, I decided to embark on this experiment.

While I don’t ever plan on switching to Mac computers or iPads, the time for tasting the forbidden fruit of the Dark Side’s phone has come. I’ll be picking up the iPhone 6 64gb and using it as my main device for the next 6+ months, taking you on the ride with me by documenting my experiences.  I plan on putting out content that describes how I’m making the switch, which apps/services replace my WP ones, and what new apps I can discover that I wouldn’t be able to live without. When Windows Phone 10 comes out next year, Microsoft will have to convince me that it’s time to rejoin the Rebel Alliance. Or will the allure of the Empire be too much for me to give up?

God, I’m such a nerd…


Coming up on Part 2, initial impressions


Thinking about getting a fitness tracker for the holidays? Here are my impressions from 24 hours of using the Microsoft Band

I was on vacation when the Band was released, and although I happened to be near a Microsoft store, all of the Bands had been sold out by the time I got there. So I backordered one and waited, meanwhile reading every review I could find. It seemed like the reviews were really mixed, and a lot of it came down to personal preference on how the band fit. I tried it on a few different times in the store, and each time I felt like it didn’t fit right, so worst case I figured I would try it out and return it in a few days if it continued to be an issue.

After waiting 10 days on the backorder waiting list (I was not one of the people that could justify spending double the price to pick one up on EBay), I finally got the call that my Band had arrived, so I rushed down to the store to pick it up. Again, I tried the floor model on before getting mine, and again, I was worried about fit.

About a year ago, I was involved in a podcast that discussed what top features we wanted in a smartwatch, and incredibly enough, even though the Band isn’t a smartwatch, itpretty much  hit all of mine:

  • Telling time (duh!)
  • Fitness/sleep tracking
  • Call/Email/Text notifications
  • Comfort/Style

I was never a watch person, and honestly, it was only a matter of hours before I stopped noticing the Band was on my wrist. It is a little thick compared to the Fitbit band and some other fitness trackers available, but I would imagine that if

You can access the different apps by swiping left and right.

You can access the different apps by swiping left and right.

you’re used to wearing a watch, the difference is minimal. The one consideration is that since the display is flat and not curved at the ends, it does protrude slightly. So far I haven’t banged it or snagged it, but we’ll see once I wear it for a while. I’ve also seen a lot of reviews where people complain that having the screen facing in makes typing more difficult, which I haven’t had issues with either.

There’s a setting you can turn on (not sure why it’s not on by default) that makes the screen always show the time, essentially making it a watch. While there are a few background and color options, you can’t swap in different watch faces like the Apple Watch or Android Wear watches. So far, that’s not a huge issue for me, but that may be a considerable factor for others. The band itself has a black rubberish look, and there is a clever clasp that allows you to adjust the tightness. It’s in the middle for me as far as style. While it’s not as slick as the more expensive Apple Watch bands or the Moto 360, it won’t look out of place to people who are used to seeing professionals wear a Fitbit to the office. Since I wear suits a lot, this is a pretty big deal for me, and while I haven’t had a meeting requiring me to wear formal attire so far, I don’t foresee it clashing too much with my style.


The Microsoft Health companion app on the Windows Phone is gorgeous.

The smart move that Microsoft made here is that it works cross platform, so that you can use it with any Windows Phone, iPhone, or Android Phone. My first day I used the Band with my Lumia 920 (WP 8.1), and I had it synced and running in about 2 minutes. I’ve been waiting for a well designed Windows Phone app that drops the typical template of the large text and tiles, and Microsoft seriously delivered on this one.


The apps are very similar on all three platforms

I’m a huge data nerd (my whole life is basically in spreadsheets), and I believe heavily in making decisions based on that data. I am also what you might call, a “casual” exerciser. I play in a soccer league and once in a while play some pick up sports, but I spend the majority of my life sitting in front of a computer. It’s difficult for me to get motivated to go to the gym (I have no idea what I’m doing around weight machines), and I abhor running. The only data I have around my health

The sleep graph shows you when you wake up during the night.

The sleep graph shows you when you wake up during the night.

is a scale that I weigh myself on twice a day. My normal weight is somewhere around 166-169, so if I see 170 come up, I know I’m in need of some physical exertion.  The idea that I can now track a number of health related data points is very appealing to me, but the current fitness trackers (Fitbit, Jawbone, etc) didn’t quite offer enough for me to buy them.

So in addition to steps taken and calories burned, the Band tracks sleep. Previously, I’ve had no way of knowing how well I sleep at night. The Health app tells you how much actual sleep you got, how long it took to fall asleep, how much

restful and light sleep, how many times you wake up, the duration, efficiency, resting heart rate, and calories burned. There’s even a slick graphic that shows a timeline of your sleep. What’s interesting is that I atypically woke up at 3:30am and couldn’t fall back asleep (too excited to have the Band, I suppose), but felt rested. So maybe since I slept efficiently I still got the sleep I needed. We’ll have to see how this looks after a week.

The first time I received a text and got a gentle buzz on my wrist I was in mid sentence explaining a project to a friend. Having the ability to discretely glance at my wrist and see who the text was from and what the message was in a split second is going to be revolutionary for me. How annoying is it to be in a meeting and having someone’s phone ring “silently” but vibrate the whole table like an 8.9 earthquake? I’ve been waiting for a long time to have this information at a subtle glance, and I’m loving this ability.

I didn’t make it to the gym during this first day, but I did track a quick workout. I have been experimenting with this “7 minute workout”, so I fired up the video and completed the activities. The Band gives you a nice summary of your heart rate, time elapsed, and calories burned (see the gallery below for some more screenshots). The app shows a graph that shows heart rate minute to minute, as well as a handy reference for where your rate falls (light, aerobic, anaerobic, and max). You can also see duration, calories burned (broken down into fats and carbs), average heart rate, ending heart rate, and recovery time. My recovery time was off since I took off the Band immediately after the workout to take a shower (I promise it doesn’t take me an hour to recover from a 7 minute workout!).

The cooler function is using one of the guided workouts. There are about 100 pre-made workouts to choose from, and the Band displays the current activity (push ups, crunches, etc) and time remaining for that activity. The Band will buzz you when it’s time to move on to the next activity. The app shows you a breakdown of the activity, time, calories burned for that activity, and an estimated number of reps. I didn’t know this would be tracked, so I’ll have to try it again to see how close the estimated reps are to what I completed. I also haven’t tried out the Run feature, but with a built in GPS, you can track your runs without having to take your phone with you, another useful addition.

The few times I tested the Cortana integration, it was minimally useful. You can hold the action button on the side to activate Cortana, and while it’s nice to be able to play music without having to go to my phone, every question I asked ended up with a notification saying to use my phone. iOS and Android users won’t be missing out on too much.

Although it’s only been a day, after using the band for 24 hours and only charging it while I was in the shower and getting ready for the day (maybe an hour or s0) I was still left with more than 60% battery life. Check back for the full review in a week for a more accurate analysis of batter performance.


Areas for Improvement

I love all this data, but I have no idea what much of it means. I need this type of app to recommend goals for me. For example, after a week or so of data, I should be able to input scenarios, i.e. If I want to lose 5 pounds and knowing I normally burn x calories a day, how many steps should I be taking/how many calories should I be burning/do I need to work out at the gym today? Also, what do I do with this sleep data and how can I sleep more efficiently? Should I not eat so late or go to bed earlier?

Basic overview on the app

Basic overview on the app

There’s still other data I would like stored, such as inputting weight and how many calories I consume during the day. I haven’t experimented with the partnership with other apps, such as myFitnessPal yet, so hopefully I can hack together something for the time being. There’s no week view for sleep activity like steps or calories, but you can view how much sleep you got each night in the Activity list.

In my quest to become more active, I found that quick 7 minute workout that I committed to doing on the days I don’t have any other exercise planned. I would love to be able to customize the workout into the Band so that I can get the same type of guidance as the downloadable ones. This wouldn’t be too complex, all I would like to input is the exercise, duration, and rest period time.

It’s amazing having notifications on my wrist and not having to always have my phone out and near me. There’s still room for improvement though. I can send a text using Cortana by saying the full command (“Text Shawn I’m on my way”), but I don’t have the option to respond to texts using Cortana. When I receive a text notification on my Band, one of the options should be “Reply” that triggers voice input.

Also, aside from Cortana, communication seems to go one way, from the phone to the Band. When I dismiss a notification on a text on the Band, the notification is still on my phone. That’s not a big deal, but when my alarm went off this morning, my Band buzzed (which is great), but hitting dismiss on the Band didn’t end my alarm, I had to turn it off on the phone as well.

That said, these are all software fixes and can all be ironed out in future updates.

As with any hardware, things can always be slimmer and lighter. This is definitely a first go at this type of hardware for Microsoft, and if history is any indication, it takes a few tries before they end up with what they should have had in the first place (i.e. Microsoft Surface Pro 3).


Who should try/buy this?

I add “try” in there because at the end of the day, comfort is a very important factor that is extremely dependent on the person. The Band comes in Small, Medium, and Large and I highly recommend going to a store to try them out if at all possible. There is a sizing chart on Microsoft’s website, but the sizes seem pretty intuitive – I figured that I would be a Medium, and that’s what I am. Looks are also important to people, which again comes down to personal preference. It’s not a small Fitbit, but it’s also not a massive Samsung Gear.

Sizing and style aside, ask yourself what you’re looking for in a wearable right now.

Receiving notifications on my wrist is awesome

Receiving notifications on my wrist is awesome

The Band has an advantage because it works almost equally on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone devices – something you certainly don’t get with Android Wear or the Apple Watch. At $200 (I don’t recommend paying $300-350 on Ebay), I think Microsoft priced the Band well – above the $100 for the Fitbit, but below the $250+ of most SmartWatches.

If you’re looking for a fitness tracker that’s a step above the Fitbit and other similar bands, you should definitely try the Microsoft Band.

  • The companion app is slick and full of data points.
  • The Band software, while it has room for improvements, is highly useful and pretty intuitive.
  • Notifications are awesome to have on your wrist.
  • The screen is as responsive as you would expect from a wearable.
  • Battery life will get you through more than a day, and it charges quickly
  • For $200, the Band is much cheaper than the Moto 360 or Apple Watch.
  • Works with Windows Phone, iOS, and Android.

If you just need a wearable to track your steps/calories/sleep and having notifications isn’t that appealing to you, then the Fitbit and other similar bands are your best options. The Band is definitely not a SmartWatch – there aren’t apps you can download and there’s minimal customizability. For those who have Windows Phones, however, this is your closest SmartWatch option for now, but for Android and iPhone users, the Moto 360 is out and Apple Watch is around the corner, both of which offer a ton more features.

  • The Band has more features than some people need, and fitness trackers are typically sub $100.
  • Fit and style are huge considerations, and people may find the Band too bulky or not stylish enough.
  • People looking for SmartWatches will want more features and apps.

At the end of the day, I think it’s worth having something to track your activity, whether it’s a notebook/Excel spreadsheet that you manually record information into or a wearable like a Fitbit, Band, or SmartWatch that tracks data for you.

I know that there are many people who, like me, could stand to lead healthier lives. While owning a device like the Band won’t alone get you into living healthier, getting in the habit of tracking activity and using this data to make informed decisions about exercise, eating, and sleeping habits will undoubtedly change lives for the better.

Tracking Student Skills Like A Role Playing Game

The Feedback Loop

For those of you familiar with my last post, Increasing Student Engagement By Grading Backwards, you know that I am a huge proponent of bringing game mechanics into the classroom. In that article, I touched upon the idea of an additive grading system, where students start at zero and earn points by performing well on assignments, quizzes, projects, etc. This time, I would like to focus on another critical element that make good games (and good teaching) so engaging: Feedback.

In her book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal defines feedback as a system that “tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players’ knowledge of an objective outcome: ‘The game is over when….’ Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.” People familiar with good games see this all of the time. In many role playing games, a typical feedback loop might go like this – fight the monster, gain experience points, level up, fight stronger monsters. During this cycle, players are constantly being inundated with data – how much damage their weapons deal, how much health they have left, how many experience points are required to level up, etc. Unless you play Dark Souls, where the feedback changes to – enter dark cave, see scary monster, run away!

dark souls


Feedback is not only confined to video games.  During a sporting event, the athlete receives continual feedback although it may not be explicit or formative.  For example, when the player misses a jump shot, they know immediately that they didn’t do everything right.  Besides missing the shot, they may have just “felt” it in their release.  It may, however, take additional analysis and feedback from their coach to explain what they didn’t do properly and how to improve their chances of making the shot next time.

In her definition of feedback, Jane McGonigal discusses three important elements – having a goal, receiving data on progress, and real-time feedback:

  • Having a goal – Players need to know what they’re attempting to accomplish and that it is obtainable. That way, the goal never seems hopeless and players are encouraged to continue despite whatever obstacles they face.
  • Receiving data on progress – Players need to know how close they are to achieving their goal. To provide players with regular and appropriate data, large big-picture goals may need to be divided into smaller goals. The data both motivates the player and also helps guide their next actions.
  • Real-time feedback – Players need to have constant access to this data, and this needs to be updated in real-time so that players can accurately assess their skill level.

Educators also know the importance of feedback, and these same elements apply. Students need to be aware of what the desired outcomes are, what are they learning, and how this will benefit them. They need to know how far away they are from achieving that goal, and be able to see the progress they have made. Students, especially this generation where most students play at least casual games, also need constant, consistent updates on their progress and to know what they have to do to improve. In turn, teachers need tools to quickly record student progress and access student performance data to know exactly where their students need more support and instruction. This data would allow teachers to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of each individual student.

The key to providing impactful feedback is relevant data. So what does effective skill tracking look like?


Character Sheets

In typical role playing games, players have a set of skills (such as Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, etc) that make up their character. For those of you familiar with role playing games, a “character sheet” might look something like this:


As players progress through the game, these skills improve based on how well the player performs. Additionally, many games are built on a system of mastery based progression, meaning that they do not allow the player to progress to the next objective until they have mastered the previous task. Skills are built upon over time, such as learning more complex moves to defeat more difficult bosses. This system allows players to go at their own pace. A well-designed game will constantly be challenging players at the edge of their ability, giving them challenges that are not too easy that a player gets bored, but not too hard that a player feels that the goal is completely unobtainable.

Let’s apply these concepts to a different set of skills and setting. Consider the Common Core State Standards in a classroom. As students progress through school, their educational skills are (hopefully) improved. A 6th Graders character sheet, instead of Strength and Dexterity, would display their proficiency in skills like Math “Statistics and Probability” and ELA “Craft and Structure”.

Student progress is typically assessed through a series of benchmark tests administered a few times throughout the year. However, good games provide real-time, consistent and regular feedback so the player knows where they stand and how they can improve at any given time. Why isn’t this type of essential feedback provided to our students? It’s difficult, time consuming, and requires lots of data to track accurately.

This is where technology can help.


Tracking Skill Progression

The need for this type of a data tracking tool couldn’t be any more timely, as many schools and districts are beginning to adopt and adapt to Common Core State Standards, which, in essence, is all about tracking student progress against a set of learning objectives. The problem that exists right now is the gap between teachers being expected to track this progress and having a effective tool to enable them to do so.

In order to accurately track student progress, educators need to be able to align the activities in the classroom with various learning objectives. They then need to assess each individual student on how they performed on each learning objective. This data will then be able to inform educators on which of their students need help in certain areas. Furthermore, this tool would provide feedback to the students themselves so that they can assess and track their own progress. If the teachers upload rubrics on the meaning of their scores, students would also be able to see why they received a particular score and how they can improve.

A tool that can do these things will empower educators with the ability to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of each individual student and empowers students with the knowledge of how they are performing and how to improve their skills. This has been our thought process and the goals behind developing mySkillBoard. We are currently in the final stages of developing this software, and expect to be ready to launch for the beginning of the fall school year. It is important for us to get as much feedback from educators as we can to make this the most effective tool possible. For more information or to be involved in the development of this software, please visit mySkillBoard.com.

Increasing Student Engagement By Grading Backwards

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Good Morning. You All Have An F: Increasing Student Engagement Via An Additive Grading System