Gotta Be An Easier Way

Using technology to make your life easier!

Archive for February, 2009

Image representing Twiddla as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

I am sure most of you have heard of online whiteboards and applications like Elluminate  and Wimba.  Twiddla is very similar to these types of applications but without all the bells and whistles. At its core it allows you to easily set up a common Twiddla session complete with audio and text chat. You have a suite of editing tools which include drawing, text bubbles, media import and the biggest reason to use Twiddla, web page importing. Drop any URL into the Twiddla online browser and voila you can mark up that page however you want. All this is done online with no downloads, no signups and a very easy invitation form to invite other attendees.

So how can you use Twiddla for Education:

  • Have distance students attend a session where you use Twiddla like a physical Whiteboard. Like a lecture.
  • Open a Wikipedia page and show where it is inaccurate or accurate. You can then browse to different webpages and dynamically change those new sites.
  • Have a collaborative brainstorming session.
  • Solve Math problems either collaboratively or in the form of a lecture.
  • Upload images and mark them up.
  • Upload documents to send to all attendees.
  • With the ability to embed other widgets the possibilities really open up and allow a whole new host of things that are possible.

That’s what I would do but I don’t have the opportunities that some of you have so let me know what you would use it for or what you use Elluminate for and share the love.

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  • Filed under: Browsers, Collaborative
  • Many instant messaging tools (MSN, Gtalk, Yahoo, AIM) really bridged the gap that email left by allowing you to have synchronous conversations with people. The only problem with it is that there are so many services out there that it gets hard to figure out which friend/collegue/student is on which service. That is where Adium, Meebo and Pidgin come in. They collect various IM services into one service.

    So How could this work for Education?

    • As an instructor you could make yourself available to all your students by using this service. That way it doesn’t require them to change their ways any and makes you available to them for whatever times you designate.
    • Set up lectures with question periods and have it open so students with laptops can message their questions in. This engages the more shy students and lets you preview a question temporarily before answering.

    If you want a comparison chart that I created of the three services you can download the PDF here.

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  • Filed under: Email/Communications
  • Wordle, a word cloud generator

    There isn’t much to Wordle it just does what it does very well and that is create word clouds from text that you input. If you have never experienced a word cloud then you are missing out, the more often a word shows up in a chunk of text the larger it appears in the cloud (see the example below). There is no signup required although it helps with a few things. You have a fair amount of control over the word cloud by being able to change the font, layout, colour and all the usual visual treatments.

    So how can this benefit education?

    • Create a visual of by pasting the text from a chapter of a book/text/article and easily represent the words that show up most in the book.
    • Get your students to create word clouds (a word of caution on this use as the gallery is not moderated so it is possible for students to browse and find unsuitable word clouds and images so a word to the wise).
    • Put word clouds into your course as often as you can to spice it up and show the content of the the course section at a glance.

    That’s all I got so help me out and give me some ideas of great ways to use this free service.

    Wordle: Wordle in Education2

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  • Filed under: Graphics
  • Ustream

    Ustream is an online service that lets you stream live or recorded video to a worldwide audience. The service is all hosted on their site, you just record/broadcast it and it is available to all. All you need is a web cam, microphone and an internet connection. As an added bonus whoever is watching can chat with the broadcaster or with each other live. This opens up plenty more opportunities.

    So how could someone in education utilize this tool?

    • Well I think the obvious way is to stream lectures live to Distance Learning Students to make them feel more a part of a class. Even if they cant make it at the specified time they can watch the recording. Questions could be asked and wouldn’t interrupt the lecture.
    • Set up a weekly channel broadcast where you deliver added value content for your course, nothing required but something that they can watch for a bit more information.
    • We’ve all seen or heard of live feeds of a rare bird nesting or a beluga webcam at the Vancouver Aquarium ( why not set something like that up for a science experiment or a research project.
    • Broadcast big events that you are covering and give your synopsis of what is happening.
    • Set up a roundtable discussion with some colleagues, discuss some important issues that involve your course and even involve the viewers to ask questions.
    • Broadcast campus sporting events.

    Again these are just some of my ideas and I would love to hear your comments or additions to this topic.

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  • Filed under: Video
  • Template Change

    Ironically with our previous template there was no obvious or easy way to post comments on the site. You could post comments on our site with our previous template–it just wasn’t that easy/obvious. Rather then use the tried and true convention of using the label “Comments” the template creator provided a balloon icon just below the date icon on the left hand side of each post. The only way that one would know that this was the link to post a comment is if they were astute enough to mouse over the “00” in the balloon window. The two zeros were placeholders for the number of comments posted.

    This was WAY to difficult! So to be true the our guiding philosopy that there has gotta be a better way, we changed the template.

    Lets us know what you think.

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  • Filed under: Why we do it
  • Can you Diigo it?

    I wrote an article extolling the social bookmarking tool Diigo. In my zeal I left out some really important ways that Diigo can and is used so I thought it was worth a revisit.

    Diigo’s tools in a nutshell:

    • Research tools
      • tagging
      • list creation
      • persistent highlighting (if you highlight text on a web page it will show up there every time you return and if you make it public anyone else will see it, or only allow people in a group view it instead of the whole world) Try it out yourself by clicking the link no signup required.
      • persistent commenting (same as the highlights )
      • archiving bookmarks
    • Presentation tool
      • Webslides via lists (add bookmarks to a list as well as your own slides. It all plays back to whomever you send the link to with full web interactivity and they don’t even need a Diigo account, check this one out and you can even print it out)
    • Social bookmarking tools
      • tagging
      • public and private access to individual bookmarks
      • search engine
      • unread bookmarking functions
      • create bookmark lists
      • share bookmarks to entire groups
      • see bookmarks that your groups post but you retain the right to not bookmark them.
      • discover people who have similar bookmarks, tags, groups
      • show the sites you bookmark most
      • messaging
      • cloud lists
      • Posting to blogs (I posted this article to my blog from Diigo)

    There is more but I only have so much space.

    So what can an educator use this application for?
    Here are some ideas I came up with,

    • Use the annotation tools to keep notes for yourself on important websites, I know sometimes its nice going to a website i haven’t seen in a long while and have a few notes or the important text highlighted.
    • Make your annotations public and have your students become Diigo members which will allow your
    • Create a list of links that are important to a course, this creates a webslide presentation that you can share with whomever you want. This will then bypass deep linking copyright (as far as I understand the copyright laws). The links in the presentation are still navigable and provide students an overview of resources.
    • Broaden your knowledge horizon by joining a group. I have found dozens of E-Learning and Education groups which harness the power of the masses by bringing you all the best resources on the web regarding whatever topic you choose.
    • Why not create a web research quiz? Set it up like a scavanger hunt by finding a bunch of websites that your students need to do research on and post questions on those sites using the “post it” annotation tool in Diigo. This displays your questions to them on the page that they needed to research which teaches them research skills and they won’t know the question until they do the research.
    • Create a group for your whole class and make the research process a group activity spreading the knowledge around.

    These are just some ideas that I came up with but the possibilities are there for the taking.

    I want to hear about what you use Diigo for or ideas that you may have on how to use it for education.

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  • Filed under: Bookmarking, Email/Communications, Research, Search
  • Google Video Chat

    Because I continuously experiment with Netbooks, Unbuntu (Linux) virtualized installs of XP, Vista and other OS’s on my MacBook I have to often set up Firefox and add all my favorite extensions and plugins. Diigo (Tyler is writing about this extension) is always one of the first extension to be added followed immediately by Google Video Chat.

    Since its release late 2008 I have used this lightweight one-to-one desktop videoconferencing system virtually daily. If you are fortunately enough to have a Mac, Netbook, or a newer PC laptop with a built in webcam and mic then this system just works. You run the plug-in install, restart Firefox, log onto your Gmail account, click on a contact to chat with and you can turn any chat session in to a video chat–assuming the person on the other end is set up as well.

    Google Video Chat isn’t as powerful as Mac’s iChat or Skype but it is just so easy to use that I encourage everyone to install it and run it instead of the traditional text based chat.

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  • Filed under: Browsers, Video
  • Easier Way To Go Green

    apc-powersurge1APC now offers the Power-Saving Essential SurgeArrest powerbar which not only safeguards your equipment from damaging power transients, it also helps lower your electric bill. Three “Master/Controlled” outlets are designed to detect when your computer is asleep where it then automatically powers “off” connected peripherals to prevent wasteful power consumption.

    In plain English, when your computer is shut off or goes to sleep three controlled outlets will automatically turn off. If you have an external hard drive, card reader, printer or any other power consuming peripheral plugged into one of these outlets these devices will be turned off saving energy, money and ultimately the environment. Its just that easy…

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  • Filed under: Peripherals
  • About a year ago I was looking for a good solution to share large files that email couldn’t handle (20+mb), I also needed a few other things that I wanted it to do like:

    1. Sync files automatically across multiple computers.
    2. Have access to my files regardless of the computer that I am using i.e. read a PDF from an internet cafe computer.
    3. Collaborate with people via sharing large files.
    4. Store files online.

    Luckily I found a tool to help with all of that and more, Dropbox. Here is a highlight reel of what Dropbox offers:

    1. 2 GB free storage space online
    2. File syncing across multiple computers
    3. OS independent
    4. Large and small file sharing via public folders
    5. Photo sharing via photos folder (includes a web interface web gallery)
    6. Public folder sharing where multiple Dropbox accounts can have access to specified folders and all accounts gain syncing power to constantly be updated with new files in that folder.
    7. Invisible syncing and through the web interface you can see Dropbox activity.
    8. Web interface to access your files while away from your computer
    9. A public folder that allows you to put up files, grab a url from the file, and give the link to whomever and they can download the file without downloading Dropbox. Try it out for yourself by clicking here. and here . as you can see it allows you to link right to html documents and flash files.

    To use Dropbox you just download the software install it and it will create a folder in your computer called, you guessed it, Dropbox. It runs in the background and only syncs when you add a file or take one out of the folder. Install Dropbox on any computer you want to sync files across and it will run in the background making sure that the Dropbox folder is synced.Watch this video to better understand what Dropbox has to offer and go here for a tour of dropbox .

    So how could you as an educator use it?

    1. Well how about posting important files for download into your public Dropbox folder and sending the link to all your students so they can download it?
    2. What if you are working with another instructor or content expert, you could set up a collaborative folder so you both would be up to date with what the other has done.
    3. Leave your work computer at work and know that those files will be on your home computer for you to work on later.
    4. Have your students all get dropbox accounts and you could set up a folder where they can send put up their assignments like an assignment dropbox.
    5. With an account your students could have group collaboration and you would be able to see their progress (as long as you are invited into their group folders) and who is most active and it keeps track of versions and if a file has been deleted which would reduce the odds of cheating.
    6. Use it to archive important files (you can undelete deleted items and even restore different versions of the same file)
    7. Whatever you want!

    So how do I (Tyler Wall) use Dropbox? Well I have a fellow comic aficionado back in my home town and we are creating a web comic together so I created a new folder in Dropbox and invited him to it. We now both have access to the folder (and no one else) and if I put up a new drawing it syncs to his computer and it is like sharing a folder on the web. I also use it to backup important files, all in folders that no one else has access to.

    It has revolutionized the way I collaborate on a large scale project. I haven’t seen my friend in over a year but I feel like we haven’t missed a beat with thanks to Dropbox.(and a few other online tools). Without Dropbox collaboration would be much more difficult.

    So if you have Dropbox and use it regularly or have ideas of how to use it for education by all means post a comment and let me and everyone else know your great idea.

    Why Use Firefox

    To answer this question one just needs to look to list of advantages it has over all other available browsers which include:

    • Open-source – FREE!
    • Cross platform – Firefox will work, and more importantly, look virtually the same on Windows, OSX and Linux.
    • Security – Firefox will block many websites from trying to install spyware and other mal-ware from getting onto your computer. It is not prone to the ActiveX security flaws that Internet Explorer (IE) and other IE based browser are subject to.
    • Popup blocking – Firefox has a very good built in popup blocker that blocks all those annoying popups when you open up a web page.
    • Tabbed Browsing – While this feature is now copied by IE and all the other browsers it was Firefox that made it so simple open pages in tabs in one window instead of having every page on a different window.
    • Extensions and plugins – Because of the open source platform and huge developer community no other browser as a many optional add-ons created by users that add enormous functionality to an already very functional browser. We will be touching on some of the “best” extensions and plugins in future posts. There are thousands of add-ons to choose from and with over 30 add-ons on my system this is perhaps on the most important personal reason to use Firefox–you can make it do exactly what you want or need it to do.

    If you have never used anything but IE than you really need to give Firefox a try. Once you have used it and customized it to do what you need or want, you will find it really can make your life a bit easier.

    Download Firefox now…

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  • Filed under: Browsers