Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review of PG Key

I was recently given one PG Key to review in exchange for my opinion of it, and I was thrilled with the opportunity! While the computer that my children (9, 7, 5, and 5) use is in the schoolroom right next to my own laptop, they have been getting very savvy about Internet searches.  They find something outside, and immediately come in and try to search the Internet to find out what they have discovered.  In theory, of course, they are supposed to ask before using the computer, but in practice, I really have no desire to stifle the investigative techniques of my budding scientists. Thus, the arrival at my door of a device that promised to protect my children from all of this:

 seemed like an answer to a prayer!

PG Key is a little bit more complicated than plug-n-play, but not much, and it needs to be somewhat customizable so that each family can decide for itself which Internet territory is off-limits to its offspring.  When you open your software box, you will find this:

All that is required is for you to plug the PG Key into a USB port on the computer you wish to protect.

Once installed, you can customize your PG Key in a variety of ways.  You can enter a list of "banned" search words that the Internet is forbidden to search (please note: this feature does not work in Google, however, PG Key will alert you when your banned words have been searched in Google, allowing you to monitor your children's activity, virtually in real time).  You can set a time limit on your children's Internet usage.  When the time limit expires, they must enter your password to access additional time.  You are able to monitor both sides of all chats in which they engage, and block any websites you don't want them to go to at all.

I found PG Key quite easy to use.  Everything about it was either explained or intuitive.  Most impressively, the $49.99 price tag is all you will ever pay.  There are no monthly monitoring or update fees.  You can change the configuration of your PG Key anytime, so as your kids get older, you can change the banned words from "Harry Potter", for instance, to, sadly, "nudity." If you're looking for an aid to your computer observation efforts, though, you're not going to find one much cheaper than this one.  If you're not sure you want to commit to the full price of PG Key, though, a free trial is available through their website.

PG Key works with Windows XP, Vista, and 7, but based on my trying it on two separate computers, it seems fair to say that the newer the computer and the operating system, and the more memory your computer has available, the less impacted your speed and performance will be by the installation of PG Key.  Of course, if you have a computer dedicated solely to your children's use, as I am fortunate enough to have, it is likely that slightly slower performance will not be an issue.

My family has really benefited from PG Key, but to see what other members of The Crew had to say, be sure to check out all of the reviews here!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review of The Digital Frog Field Trip Series

The Digital Frog is perhaps best known for its digital dissection software, and when I found out that I would be receiving one of the Digital Frog's products free in return for my review, I was half-afraid, half-hopeful.  All of my emotions turned to excitement, though, when I opened my mail and saw a product with which I was completely unfamiliar: the digital field trip series.  The Digital Frog puts its amazing technological resources to use to create virtual field trips to three exciting locations: a rainforest, wetlands, and a desert.  Through the interactive experience created by these DVDs (available separately or bundled together), the user truly experiences each habitat in a variety of ways.

Each of the habitats is explored in the same way.  By navigating a series of interlocking puzzle pieces, the user can roam every part of the habitat she is in.  For example, the rainforest field trip begins with Central America, before narrowing to Belize and the Blue Creek Rainforest Reserve.  Right from the start, your child is learning, as you are not exploring just any rainforest: you are field-tripping through an actual rainforest in a real place.  This field trip is not likely one that any of our homeschools will ever take in our lifetimes, outside of our own homes!

Once you've arrived at the rainforest, you are in the driver's seat!You can "learn about the tropical rainforest", "experience the tropical rainforest", and "learn about tropical rainforest types." The choices seem endless, especially when inside of each choice there is so much information.  You can learn all about each of the many types of animals inside the rainforest, complete with descriptions and vivid pictures.  In fact, just about anything you see in the rainforest is "explorable", some areas complete with narration, and many complemented by worksheets and teacher support materials.  To be honest, my children (ages 5, 5, 7, and 9) and I have only gone through each field trip once.  I know that we have barely begun to discover all of the wonders available on this disc! I am excited to load it up again, as are my children.  Although the readable material was over the heads of my twins, once I read it to them, it was easily accessible.  Hence, I would judge that these digital field trips are suitable for all ages.  The degree to which one can work with them independently varies with the degree to which one can read comfortably.  Younger children may not be able to take full advantage of the 35 botany screens available, but they will thrill to the images of the jaguar and the sloth, and they will come away with a true appreciation of the amazing and diverse rainforest (and desert and wetlands)!

It is hard to convey the beauty of these field trips via a written post.  I would strongly encourage you to download the demo versions on the Digital Frog's website.   Judge for yourself whether or not these digital field trips will enhance your studies of habitats, botany, biology, adaptation, and so much more.  It is true that you could just watch a National Geographic Special, but you can't interact with a National Geographic special! Kids love being able to interact with their studies!

The system requirements for this digital experience are minimal: the same disc runs on both Mac and Windows.  You will need Windows 2000, XP, 7, or Vista (32-bit, preferably), 32 MB of RAM (with 64 recommended), 75 MB of hard drive space for QuickTime.  Mac specifications, and all technical support, can be found on the website here.  Homeschool pricing for the Digital Frog's field trip series can be found here.   Each field trip can be purchased separately for $60, or you can essentially buy two and get the third free by bundling them together on one DVD, and purchasing all three for $125.

I think it's clear that I loved the Digital Frog's virtual field trips.  To see what other members of the Homeschool Crew had to say, click here!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review of Lanschool

As a member of TOS' Homeschool Crew, I was recently given the exciting privilege of reviewing LanSchool, classroom management software, free, in exchange for my opinion of it.  In one word, my opinion of LanSchool, and please forgive the technical term, is cool! This software is very, very cool.  In order to avoid gushing, I'll try to describe and review LanSchool systematically.  Wish me luck; I'm going to need it.  What I really feel like doing is yelling COOL!

LanSchool is certainly most applicable in a brick-and-mortar school setting, as it allows a teacher computer access to all of the student computers in her class.  From her computer screen, she can see the screens of her student's computers.  Even better than that, she can control those screens.  She can send her students messages, control their web access, see their keystroke and browsing history, and even blank their screens.  This obviously gives the teacher a huge advantage in a day and age in which technology threatens to overtake even the most vigilant teacher.  All of a sudden, she can be everywhere at once! She does have eyes in the back of her head (or, at least, all over her computer!).

Since most of the people reading this review do not teach at brick-and-mortar schools, though, I'm going to address the majority of my remarks to homeschoolers because, believe it or not, LanSchool has plenty to offer you, too.  First, in terms of classroom management, LanSchool is a terrific tool if you have more than two computers (you have to have at least two in order to use the software: one teacher and one student computer).  Thanks to a recent purchase, I now have three classroom computers (sadly, my husband's desktop is off limits to the homeschoolers!).  My laptop is the teacher computer.  The schoolroom desktop and my old laptop are student computers.  Thanks to technology (and my need to teach four children very close in age to each other who, nevertheless, require different teaching styles and different curricula), two of my children can now work on some of their schooling on the computer, while I work with two other children on non-techie subjects.  My problem previously had been trying to keep an eye on the computer-users while staying focused on the kids I was teaching.  Problem solved with LanSchool! With one glance, I can see what my computer-using kids are doing.

If I find that they are doing something which displeases me (surfing the 'net, playing Solitaire, etc.), I can either send them an instant message or blank their computer screens.

However, I have pretty obedient kids, so apart from sending them messages asking how they're doing, I haven't really had to resort to the blank screen option!

What has been wonderfully useful, though, is the print limiting feature of LanSchool.  My kids don't always seem to appreciate the cost of printer ink.  They also haven't grasped the concept of printing in draft mode (and I don't know any other mode at my house!).  Sometimes they get a little carried away with the printing.  Not anymore! With one adjustment on my computer, I can limit the printing done from any of the student computers.  It is so easy and so painless (for me, anyway!).  

Another feature of LanSchool that is marvelously useful in our homeschool and, I would imagine, in many homeschools, is the ability to display on student computers that which is on the teacher computer.  In the case most relevant to my family, it is usually YouTube videos.  We use many wonderful unit studies that utilize YouTube, and other, videos to teach.  Until the arrival of LanSchool, we all crowded around my laptop, with much pushing, shoving, and uncharitable behavior, in order to watch the videos.  This procedure kind of worked for most videos, but when it came time for the hour long production from the U.S. Geological Survey...well, let's just say that I shelved that unit study until LanSchool! Now, through LanSchool, I can display that which is on my computer screen on any of the student computer screens.  With almost a 1:1 ratio, my kids absorb what they see so much better these days! No more jockeying for position in front of the computer!

If you think you might like LanSchool, but you're not ready to jump in with both feet, you have two great options.  If you have an iAnything, you're in luck.  LanSchool effortlessly allows for all of the following with its free app for iPhones, iPads and iPods:
In order to find out more about how to accomplish any of these tasks, see LanSchool's iPad/iPhone/iPod Teacher's Assistant page!

For those who are iLess, consider LanSchool Lite.  LanSchool Lite allows you to monitor student computers on your own computer.  It even allows you to monitor the battery life of student laptops (another great feature of LanSchool).  If you like what you see, and think you are ready for the full version of LanSchool, with all of the neat bells and whistles, keep reading!

As you would guess, LanSchool pricing varies dramatically based on whether you are a home or a school, and on how many computers you plan to install it on.  A summary of the pricing most relevant is:
The license is perpetual, but three years of technical support and upgrades are included in the price.

I have only been using LanSchool for a short time, and I am confident that I haven't even scratched the surface of its capabilities.  The fact that I will one day, in the not-so-distant future have four children with computers (as mine and my husband's continue to be handed down) just means that LanSchool will continue to become more valuable an asset to our homeschool and to our home.  Will I monitor my children's chats and emails? I doubt it.  Do I like knowing that I can, and *them* knowing that I can? Absolutely.  In terms of our school, I already can't imagine life without LanSchool.  I've had fun sending messages to my kids and blanking their screens, but, fun aside, the features that allow me to communicate directly with their computers, even to the point of assuming their controls, and to share the video on my screen with their screens have become invaluable to me.  Had I not received LanSchool free for review, I would purchase it without hesitation.  For a family with young children, or for a family with only two computers, both of which reside next to each other, LanSchool may not be the most prudent purchase.  For most homeschooling families, though, especially for those families with teens who do some of their school on the computer, LanSchool is a must-have.  If you can't afford it this year, you might want to budget for it next year.  I wouldn't have guessed that classroom management software could do so much in my small classroom.

Learn so much more about LanSchool than I can tell you here by visiting their website: LanSchool or by contacting them at 877-370-5546. For more opinions on LanSchool, see what other members of The Crew had to say about this unique product!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review of Foundlings, Book One of the Peleg Chronicles

There are many Christian children who long to join their peers in reading the very popular Fantasy genre of books, but are prevented from doing so by their religious beliefs.  One publisher, Zoe and Sozo (the very unique name has meaning: Zoe=Life, Sozo=Save, Deliver, Protect), has recognized that Fantasy books have much to offer children in the way of plot and characters, and that using this genre to attract children and to tell a story can actually also assist in delivering a powerful message.  The Peleg Chronicles, of which I received Book One, Foundlings, free for review in exchange for my opinion of it, is a projected trilogy (the first two have been published thus far) which all parents can feel good about their children reading.

Peleg Chronicles author Matthew Christian Harding is very clear about his position on some issues that are very important to many Christian parents: his books contain no magic, no evolution, and no humanism.  He considers them to be historical fiction, as well as fantasy, and the summary page for Foundlings cites numerous scripture passages demonstrating his faithful adherence to the Bible in his writing of this book.

Rather than reiterate the story here (a solid, non-spoiler summary is available here), I will instead say that this book will probably be enjoyed by children from about 8 and up.  It would make an excellent read-aloud, as younger children can certainly listen to and understand the story.  If your child has read more mainstream fantasy, this book may seem rather quaint, but that is undoubtedly the point! Encourage them to continue, as the story has many opportunities for wonderful talks on virtues like love, friendship, and faith.  There are many possible tie-ins to school lessons here, and not just to Religion classes.  If your child has not read any other Fantasy books, then you will want to run to buy this book immediately! Your child will be treated to dragons, giants, and shield-bearers, and you won't have to give a moment's worry as to whether she is being corrupted by teachings contrary to yours.

Foundlings, and its sequel Paladins, are available for purchase from Matthew Christian Harding's website for a suggested retail price of $11.95.  The website is also an excellent place to visit for more information about this exciting and new author - a welcome addition to the Christian authors scene.  You might want to request an autographed copy (like mine!); this author will be one to be reckoned with!

Curious what other members of The Crew had to say about Foundlings? Find out here!