Staying Connected in the US

Note: AT&T recently changed their Go Phone plans, and the information here isn't correct. If you want a "daily" type pay-as-you-go plan, and want data, then AT&T has nothing for you. Their new options are absolutely ridiculous.

I have been travelling back and forth to Kentucky regularly for nearly five years. In the early years I would try and stop to eat at Burger King, the only chain that consistently had WiFi at that time. I would get off the highway, order my meal, and quickly check my email on my Windows Mobile phone. Even then I had long given up on trying to use Pocket Internet Explorer to check my favourite sites.
Apart from the occasional fast food/Internet fix I would typically just accept that I was going to be out of touch for my weekend dashes to Kentucky. Just answering the phone would cost me $4, and then another buck or two per minute after the first minute.
Eventually my Sweetie (now my wife) got high-speed Internet and, using Skype, it was easier to stay connected. We married in 2010 and still travel to visit her parents who live in eastern Kentucky and use dial-up to connect. So much for high-speed.
In the fall of 2010 I switched away from Telus as my cell provider and tried out Wind Mobile. I know not everyone has had the best experience with Wind, but it has been great for my family. One big advantage is using the phone in the States. Wind charges 25 cents per minute for using the phone in the States, and no additional "roaming charge". It's still not cheap enough that you want to have extended conversations, but I don't have to worry about answering my phone to talk for a couple of minutes.
This helped quite a bit but we soon found out that we were limited to T-Mobile coverage and sadly much of eastern Kentucky isn't covered. I already had an unlocked phone so the next challenge was to figure out which US pay-as-you-go provider was the best choice for us.
AT&T's GoPhone service has a $2 per day service for unlimited calls within the US, 19 cents per minute to Canada, and unlimited texting in the US and Canada. You only have to pay the $2 on the days you actually use the phone, and if you add $25 at a time the balance doesn't expire for 90 days.
As for data, earlier this year AT&T updated their data packages for GoPhone to include 10MB for $5, 100MB for $15, and 500MB for $25. This isn't exactly what I would call cheap, but honestly I find that checking my email, some web pages, Twitter, and Google+ only uses about 25 to 30MB over a few days. It's definitely enough to stay connected. It isn't enough for streaming audio or video, but that isn't realistic in the hills of Kentucky anyway. I end up on AT&T's EDGE (2G) network in Lee County Kentucky and typically see speeds around 200 Kilobit per second. That is about 5 times faster than dial-up; slow but usable for non-streaming types of applications.
Smartphones have also improved by incredible amounts in the last five years. I switched to an Android phone when I switched to Wind. Most of my online activities can be done easily on my phone, but I can even use my phone as a WiFi hotspot if necessary. This entire blog was typed on my phone using the Blogger app.
As for Wind in the States, my wife's phone, with the Wind SIM card still installed, actually registered on AT&T's network this past weekend. We looked at each other surprised when her phone rang at her parents' place. Maybe Wind has updated their US partnerships.
Staying connected while traveling in the States has become progressively easier over the last five years. Hopefully things keep getting better.

Are you a Mac or PC?

The one question that IT support staff (or anyone considered to be "computer savvy") consistently hear is "Mac or PC?" Unfortunately, this question is also all-to-frequently answered with one or the other, and the reasoning more often than not is defended with a religious zeal. I have heard just about every argument imaginable about why one entire platform is "better" than the other. Unfortunately, the arguments really aren't about the entire platform, but rather focus on a very special use-case scenario that will only affect a tiny number of people.

When I see the tools that most "bleeding edge" educators are recommending, they tend to be Internet-based services moreso than actual hardware or traditional software tools. Anyone reading this has, no doubt, heard the term "the cloud", and probably understands that the essence of "the cloud" is Internet-based services, most of which take the form of web-based applications.

Even when looking at actual hardware and software tools that are either commonly found in education or are recommended by educators, you will notice that they are, in most cases, available for or supported by either platform. SMART, Livescribe, iPad/iPods, and Microsoft Office come to mind here.

What is frustrating is that even those educators who encourage the use of Internet-based services are among those convincing others to "make the switch" to Macs. It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that someone who has always used Windows should purchase a Mac laptop, the least expensive of which is $1000, just so they can run web-based applications, PowerPoint, or SMART Notebook.

This is a list of the products and services that I have seen used, taught, or recommended in the educational environment in the last year. This is by no means an exhaustive list, because there have been so many web-based tools referenced in this last year I cannot possibly remember them all.
  • iPads / iPods
  • Google+, Docs, Sites
  • Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel)
  • Blogs (various)
  • Ning
  • pearltrees
  • timetoast
  • Skype
  • delicious
  • screenr
  • Prezi
  • SlideRocket
  • SMART (Notebook)
  • YouTube

There isn't a single item on that list that requires a Mac or a Windows machine specifically.

Although it may seem that I am arguing against purchasing Macs, I honestly am not. I would not try to convince someone to "make a switch". If you have always used Macs, then by all means, continue using them because you will be more comfortable using a Mac than trying to switch. If you have always used Windows, continue using Windows and don't buy into the "Mac is better" hype.