Category Archives: Apps I Like

Create Video Lessons With Belkin Stage Pro

I have been messing around lately with Belkin’s Stage Pro, an iOS app that allows you to create KAS (Khan Academy Style) video lessons using the iPad. I first found out about the app at an education conference months ago, but only recently have I had the time to create some videos with it.

I was able to import my own graphic from the Photos gallery (in this case, of the grid with the three blocks shaded in blue), then draw and make notes over it while talking. I’ve been using a set of earbuds with a built-in mic (the basic Apple variety), which produces much better sound than the iPad’s microphone alone.

I was delighted to discover today how to place and move objects around, which was perfect for a little kindergarten lesson about cardinality:

Stage Pro actually uses the device’s camera for the background–so you could set the iPad up on a stand and record virtually anything, and deliver your own voiceover and on-screen notes. I’ve been getting (and wanting) a black background because I’ve been keeping my iPad sleeve closed over the camera for the lessons I’ve been working on.

I just noticed that Belkin is running a FREE promo right now on Stage Pro–I spent $5 on mine back in January, but you can get it FREE until July 4! Go and try it out now!

Oyster is My World

oyster logoI read a lot. Like an average of one or two novels each week, more if I’m not in school or working on special projects. And I don’t want to own each book I read–in fact, I want to read many more books than I intend to own. Years ago, the library allowed me to do that most easily in the form of printed books I could borrow. More recently, I’ve been checking out ebooks from my library and reading these on the Kindle, which I love. I am also a frequent borrower of books that are part of the Kindle Lending Library (only one book per month though, which usually isn’t enough). So I still find myself wanting more, more, more books.

When I first found out about Oyster, the first “Netflix for Books” service, I knew I’d want to try it out. I was one of the first subscribers, because $9.99 per month to read anything and everything in their catalog seemed like a pretty good deal to me. They are focused only on mobile offerings (right now, just for iOS) and therefore don’t have Kindle or other e-reader integration.

Oyster shows you the most recent books you've accessed on its main mobile screen.

Oyster shows you the most recent books you’ve accessed on its main mobile screen.

After signing up and entering credit card information on their website, it’s a simple process to download the Oyster app and log in. The company has more than 100,000 titles and claims to be adding new ones regularly. Oyster doesn’t offer many brand-new releases. Instead, the company seems to have the best subscription-based backlist of traditionally-published authors available anywhere, including books in all genres.

I’ve browsed and read parts of several books on Oyster, but have completed (read from start to finish on Oyster) only four. So the built-in recommendation engine isn’t helping me find many books yet. To address this, the programmers could allow customers a way to rate books they’ve already read (similar to the way Goodreads does when you join).

However, if you already know what to search for, it’s easy to find books you like on the service. For instance, I remember how delighted I was when I discovered that many of the authors published by Open Road Integrated Media are included in Oyster’s vast catalog. I visited the ORIM Author page to browse through writers I already know about, then searched for them on Oyster to find their books. In this way I found that Ruth Rendell and Donald Westlake have several of the titles from their backlists on Oyster–it’ll take me quite a while to mow through all their books I haven’t yet read.

Oyster talks a lot about the social aspect of reading through their service, but so far none of my 300+ Facebook friends or 1000+ Twitter buddies are using it, so I’m still finding that Goodreads is a better place to share and read book reviews.

Choosing reading themes is easy.

Choosing reading themes is easy.

The reading interface and appearance while using Oyster is nice. There are several themes to choose from, and while I initially liked the Crosby theme best because of its sepia tone hues, I ultimately switched to Standard because its white background doesn’t reveal white boxes around imported graphics in books. You can easily increase or decrease font size to suit you, as well as adjust the brightness.

One thing I find annoying is the fact that it’s only possible to search the Oyster catalog through the mobile app. I wish I could search for books while I visit their website on a desktop computer. When browsing books on their website, I can add an interesting title to my own reading list, but full search capability there would be a nice added feature.

Another small beef is the fact that there is no landscape mode, on either the iPhone or the iPad. I admit it isn’t a big loss on the iPhone’s tiny screen; but when turning the iPad on its side, instead of the expected two page or two column layout, the Oyster app centers the text in a single (and fairly narrow) column in the middle. This is clunky and would be a welcome fix in the next update.

As long as the Oyster team keeps adding new stuff for me to read, I’ll be a happy subscriber for life. You should try it out too–coinciding with their iPad launch a few weeks ago, now anyone can give it a test spin for one month, free.

App: free from the Apple App Store
Service: $9.99/month, first month free

Apps I Like: Roxie’s Doors and Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure

I’ve had my iPad2 for more than two years, and I’ve downloaded and tried hundreds of apps. Therefore, you might forgive me if I’ve become slightly jaded and unimpressed with many of them, for various reasons.

This is why I’m so excited to talk about a couple of apps from OCG Studios and the talented author/illustrator Roxie Munro: Roxie’s Doors and Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure. These two apps have rekindled my love for all things iPad, especially for games that the entire family can enjoy.

Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure

Roxie_Maze02

That’s my little red car in the lower left. I’m still looking for the penguin on this screen.

This game app is sort of a cross between Where’s Waldo? and a first-person adventure game. But it’s a devilishly clever maze too–and there are no instructions to tell you what to do (they aren’t needed). You’ll drive, walk, ski, fly and raft from screen to screen, picking up star points along the way and trying to locate objects, letters, penguins and other animals in Munro’s very detailed and beautiful artwork. Just as in real life, you can’t go the wrong way down a one-way street, and construction and other obstructions can keep you from taking the obvious route through a screen. This makes the maze quite challenging at times–in fact, I got stuck at one point and had to get my eight-year-old daughter to show me how to get to parts of the maze I’d been unable to navigate to.

The attention to detail in this app is truly wonderful. I like seeing my name on the side of a blimp!

The attention to detail in this app is truly wonderful.
I like seeing my name on the side of a blimp!

The navigation is intuitive, and there are little goodies (sound effects, etc.) to discover on each screen. The replay value is high, because the objects you’re expected to find change every time you come back to the app. It’s easy to see that both the developer and artist took great pains to get this one right. At three bucks for the iPad version, this one is a steal.

Roxie’s Doors

I’d categorize this app as a book, since there are words on the screen next to the illustrations, and matching narration by the author. But it’s also a delightful lift-the-flap and seek-and-find activity app. Each screen presents the reader with a door of some sort, and the words explain a series of objects which need to be found. What is so interesting about this book is that the doors/flaps/pockets can’t always be opened just by tapping on them. For instance, I needed to unzip a backpack pocket by dragging my finger across the bag–simply tapping it didn’t work. So the reader needs to try different approaches in order to find all the objects.

Roxie_Doors01

An apple and a hat (and a bunch of other objects) are hidden on each page.

One thing that can’t be shown in screen shots is the gorgeous three-dimensional effect built into every page of Roxie’s Doors. The app takes advantage of the iPad’s gyroscope, so readers will get a slightly different view of the room depending on how they tilt the tablet around. In some cases, items are hidden along the doorway edges and the screen will need to be tilted quite a bit in order to locate them.

Some items are hidden on the back of the door, behind the story text!

Some items are hidden on the back of the door, behind the story text! Words change from red to green once the item has been found.

As with Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure, there are sound and other effects that can be activated by tapping (turn the fire engine lights and siren on, for example). Beautiful artwork, engaging play and intuitive presentation make this one a winner, especially at only $2.99.

Both of these apps push the boundaries of what great children’s apps can be. My hat is off to both Roxie Munro and OCG Studios, and I will be on the lookout for their next collaboration.

Apps I Like: Speak for Yourself

I’m working on a Master’s degree in elementary/special education, and as a project for my Intro to Exceptionalities class, I put together this video presentation about (guess what?) an iPad app. This one is called Speak for Yourself, and it is a language assistance app for non-verbal individuals.

I admit I first heard about this app after reading an article in the Huffington Post about a patent infringement lawsuit a company called PRC slapped on the Speak for Yourself developers. As a result of the ongoing litigation, Apple made the controversial decision to (temporarily?) remove Speak for Yourself from the App Store. Read the HuffPo, TIME and Cult of Mac stories which ensued, and (if you are so inclined, as I was) sign the online petition designed to get Apple to reinstate the app while the matter is played out in court.

Lego Apps I Like

Lego Minifig Army

I like Legos—always have. Lately I enjoy getting all my minifigs out, equipping them with weapons and lining them up as if getting them ready for battle (yep, those are mine in the photo above).

But in addition to the incredible fun a person can have with the physical Legos, I notice an increasing number of Lego-themed apps for the iPhone and iPad. I’ll discuss a few of these, and if you know more about some of the others (a quick search in the Apple App Store brought up nearly two hundred of ’em), let me know in the comments.

There are at least two dozen official Lego apps, but the only one of these I’ve tried is Lego Creationary. My kids love this fast-paced game. You start by rolling the dice (drag it to the edge of the screen and ‘flick it’ back across) and what you roll becomes the category (nature, objects, buildings, vehicles, random and double-point random). Next (to play), the game starts  building something with Lego bricks and you must choose one of four possible answers (through cartoon drawings) to guess what it is before the object is built. You’ll get more points if you can guess correctly early. My kids especially enjoyed this when we first got the iPad (a year ago) because neither one of them was reading well at the time, so this was a game we could all play together. Plus, it’s free!

Another one I downloaded recently is Lego Instruct. This is a fairly basic app that shows you step-by-step how to build stuff out of your existing bricks. A few instructions are included with the download of the app, and you can get more just by choosing “add more items…” from the main menu. Simple and clean illustrations and steps make it easy to put those bricks to good use. Pretty cool! The developer is Artel Plus, and this app is also free (but displays ads along the bottom edge of the screen). There’s also an Android version which I’ve downloaded, but haven’t spent much time with yet.

BrickPad is similar to Lego Instruct, but has a couple of really nifty features that set it apart. Not only does it include instructions for building new models with your old Legos, but you can rotate a model (and therefore view it from all angles) just by dragging your finger over one of them. Very cool! Also free in the App Store.

My daughter just walked by, saw what I was doing and asked if I’d download the Lego Ninjago apps for her to play with. I’ll let you know how she likes those too. Did I miss any of your favorite Lego apps? Let me know in the comments. Happy building!

Apps I Like: Middle School Confidential-Real Friends vs. the Other Kind

Are adults the only ones who have to deal with ‘frenemies’? Unfortunately, the skill of navigating the stormy waters of relationships is needed pretty early. Middle School Confidential: Real Friends vs. the Other Kind is the second app in the award winning series by Electric Eggplant, and stands out as a resource for helping kids in their tween years work through friendships.

I reviewed the first app in this series last year, and the same team (Annie and David Fox) is behind this new offering as well. Annie says that the topic of friendships is the most common issue she sees in the emails she receives from kids this age, and this story came out of her desire to “empower tweens and teens to change the way they deal with feelings and situations–to show them that they are the key to creating the kind of relationships they want.”

Middle School Confidential App

This app is similar to the first one in that it contains several stories about a group of kids (the same characters from the first in the series) in an appealing comic book format. Each story focuses on a different scenario and character, and these seemed believable to me. There are quizzes sprinkled throughout, which I think kids will enjoy. There is also a handy character ‘cheat sheet’, which gives the reader insight into each of the kids and their behaviors.

Annie Fox handles common middle-school relationship issues with wisdom and sensitivity. I especially liked the way a bit of background was revealed on one of the troubled characters–a great lesson for kids, and helps them see that if someone is behaving unkindly, there’s often bigger issues lurking below the surface.

The Middle School Confidential apps are some of the very few apps designed for teens and tweens. Luckily for them, the apps feature professional writing and artwork, appropriate themes and high-quality production values. I love where this series is headed, and I’m glad kids this age have Annie Fox and Electric Eggplant on their side. I wish all story apps for kids contained this level of thoughtful attention and mindfulness of the target audience.

I notice this app has been optimized for the new iPad’s retina display, and it’s only $2.99 in the Apple App Store.

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of this app for review purposes.)

Apps I Like: The Artifacts

Some of my favorite stories create not only an interesting plot and compelling characters, but also a real sense of mood and place–and they incorporate details that make me want to revisit it again and again. Unlike most of the picture book apps I have, The Artifacts (a recent storybook app by the independent team Slap Happy Larry) succeeds mightily in accomplishing all of the above.

This app appears to be aimed at the older school-aged kids (8-11 or so). It’s about a kid who collects stuff–all kinds of junk from his neighbors’ trash. His parents don’t understand his need to collect, and the story is about what happens when the family moves away.

The Artifacts

The app does a wonderful job of creating a rather haunting, but irresistable mood.

I love the illustrations and the color palette the artist chose, as well as the gentle story, which would be wonderful in printed form. However, the interactive features do a fantastic job of taking full advantage of the iPad’s touchscreen and gyroscope capabilities, elevating enjoyment of the story to a whole new level. Most of the pages feature objects or words that appear when the screen is tapped, but others use the swiping/coloring technique to reveal new illustrations underneath, and a couple of them allow the reader to tilt the screen to move objects in ways that further the ideas in the story. It all makes for a very immersive, and very entertaining, experience.

While my kids are aged 6 and 7, we were all completely charmed by The Artifacts, and I bet you will be too. It’s a real steal at only $1.99 in the Apple App Store, and is a universal app which will work on any iOS device. Go git it!