Author: Sue Frantz

Entering the Blogosphere… in 3… 2… 1…

When most people think of blogs, they think of what you’re reading right now: An individual writing about a particular topic.  Blogs, however, have become so much more than that.

For instance, I maintain a semi-private social networking site for my current and interested former students; that’s a blog post unto itself.  I blog there about psychology, and I ask my current students to do the same.  There, blogs are used to create a sense of community and foster intellectual curiosity.

A number of people are moving their websites into blogging software (hosted on the server of a blog service provider or downloaded to their own server, either way).  You can still create pages that hold static content, just like your website already does, but making announcements becomes much easier (see the section on MS Word 2007 below).  You don’t have to be the sole blogger for your blog.  Let’s say that a psychology department decided to create a department website using WordPress.  After creating pages that hold information that don’t change much (e.g., degree and course information, faculty bios), decide who will be able to add blog updates.  I can imagine a number of people who would have blogging privileges: the chair, the advisors to the psych club/Psi Chi/Psi Beta, the department secretary, subject pool coordinator.  Anyone who has something to say to your students can be given the power to post.  It doesn’t have to fall to one person.  Or maybe your department would like to have a research blog where everyone can share what they’re doing — both for the input from colleagues and to show students what research looks like behind the scenes.  Rather than each of you setting up your own blog, all of you could contribute to the same blog.

Blogs come with built-in RSS feeds.   Imagine your students getting word of department news as soon as its posted… (If you’re not familiar with RSS feeds, see my post below titled “Here Comes the News.”)

Ready to start your own blog?

You only need three things.  1.) Something to say.  2.) Somewhere to say it.  3.) Someone to whom to say it.

I’m a relatively new blogger, but I’ve read my share.  Pick a schtick and stick to it.  Once you have built an audience around a theme, shifting too far afield from that theme will cause your audience to vaporize.  For instance, aside from the occasional strategically placed photo, you’ll unlikely hear about my dogs in this blog.  That’s not why you’re here.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t blog about your life.  One of the fun blogs I bring into my Google Reader is written by Lorrene, the 80 year old “grandma blogger” from Yakima, Washington: Pet Peeves and Other Ramblings.  She started her blog as a way to stay in touch with family which is probably a more common use of blogs than you may think.  Gradually she started to pick up other readers — the local newspaper article that made its way into other papers undoubtedly helped expand her readership.  In any case, choose your topic and stay focused.

The somewhere and someone questions are interrelated.  I mentioned above the social networking site I have for my students.  The psychology blog I write there is just for my current and former students, so that site is closed to the general public.  Since this blog you’re reading now has a broader audience, I needed it to be in a more public space.

If you’re going public, opening your blog to the greater world wide web, you have a number of hosting options.  First, do you want it hosted on your institution’s servers?  Some colleges already have blogging software installed.  For instance, WordPress (host of this blog) offers a download to your server or, if you’d rather, WordPress would be happy to host your blog on their own servers (as this blog is).  There are other major blogging services such as Blogger and LiveJournal. These three all offer free service; some offer ‘upgrades’ for a fee that give you things like more space.  Check with your IT people about what’s available on your campus, and then decide.

I confess to not doing a lot of searching around for the best blogging solution.  I had some experience with WordPress, I like the aesthetics of their blogs, and the blog layout is fully customizable — but you have to know some CSS to take advantage of that (on my summer to-do list). Fortunately others have already created some “themes” from which you can choose.  If you do know some CSS, you can alter the appearance of your blog very easily (a $15/year upgrade, not an unreasonable price for that kind of customization).

Getting started with WordPress — nuts and bolts.

Visit WordPress.  Click the big, blue “Sign up now” button.  Follow the on-screen directions, and you’ll have your blog ready to go in a couple minutes.

Here you can see my WordPress ‘dashboard.’  This is the screen that allows me to manage everything related to my blog. (Click on the image to blow it up.)

WordPress Dashboard
WordPress Dashboard

The menu on the top left lets me keep track of things like stats (e.g., number of visitors).  The menu on the bottom left allows me to create and edit posts, view all the images I’ve uploaded, create links that can appear in the right margin (or at least that’s where they appear with this particular layout), add pages (right now I just have an ‘about’ page), look at all of the comments that have been submitted, add a poll to a blog post.

Going further down, I can also change the appearance of my blog.  Since I don’t know CSS (yet), this means selecting from a menu of themes — entire packages of layouts, including fonts, colors, two or three columns.  Then I can add ‘widgets;’ these are extras that appear on the page.  For instance, everything you see in the right margin of my blog page is a widget.  There are many more I can add, e.g. a calendar, Delicious bookmarks (another future blog).

In the “Users” section, you can grant others permission to post to your blog.

The center panel is for editing, and you can see the standard editing toolbar.  For those who are so inclined, you can switch to “HTML” view to enter your own html code.

On the far right is where you can save your writing as a draft and set whether this particular post will be public, password-protected, or private.  Once your post has been finely crafted to your liking, you can either publish it now, or set its publication for a later date.  Finally, you can choose a category (broad) or tags (more specific) for your post.  This makes it easier for your readers to find posts once you have a bunch available.

Once you have your blog design set up as you’d like, you don’t have to come back to write your posts.

Using MS Word 2007 for blogging.

The absolute easiest way to post to a blog is to set yourself up in MS Word 2007.

Open a new Word document, click the Office button in the top left corner, select “Publish,” then “Blog.” Word will then ask you who your blog-provider is and will ask for your username and password.  That’s it.

On the blank slate that appears, type in your title and edit your document as you normally do in Word.  When you’re ready, click “Publish.”  Done. Your post is now available on your blog for all to see.  When you want to write another blog post, click the Office button, then “New,” and select “New blog post.”

wordblog

Also note that in Word, you can select a category for your post from the list of categories you have already created in WordPress.  Unfortunately, you cannot add tags or add polls.  But once it’s up, you can certainly opt to visit WordPress to tweak it. If you’re not ready to publish it immediately, hit the little down arrow on the publish button, and select “Publish draft.”  For the most everyday of blog posting tasks, MS Word works nicely.

See you in the blogosphere!

Classroom Presentations… Unplugged!

Classroom Presenter is the coolest thing that’s happened to my teaching since I got a computer in my classroom.

If all it did was allow me to present slides in a way that’s a whole lot easier than PowerPoint, it’d be worth it.

This is what is displayed to the students in class through the projector.

Classroom Presenter: Public View
Classroom Presenter: Public View

And this is what I see on my TabletPC.

Classroom Presenter: Instructor View
Classroom Presenter: Instructor View

Classroom Presenter runs PPT slides, so I don’t have to do a lot to transition to this program.  (I do have to do a few things; see below.)

To navigate I just tap on the slide I want.  As my colleague Rich pointed out to me, the slides on the right are large enough that you can tap them with your finger; this, of course, is only an important feature if you have TabletPC.

With the pen or highlighter, you can draw on the image.  You can open a ‘whiteboard’ that gives you blank slides.

So, not only is it much easier to navigate and write on than PPT, but I’m completely mobile.  I’m unplugged.  I’m doing this through my classroom’s WiFi, so I can wander around the room, teaching from wherever I’d like.  I could even hand a student the laptop and ask them to write on it.

As if that weren’t cool enough, any student with a laptop can access my slides, live, also through WiFi.  They not only see my slides on their screens, but they see my annotations to them in real time.  They can add their own if they like for their own use.  But… they can also send a particular slide to me.  So, let’s say I had 7 students with laptops.  I could put my students in groups of 4 or 5 (one laptop per group) to work on something, such as generating examples of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment (or a math problem, or a physics problem, or editing some text, or…).  The group could generate examples, the laptop owner could type them in (or mouse draw).  Once they had completed the assignment, they could send me what they did, in real time.  I could look at the slides from each of the groups, and then tap on them to show them to the class.

There is also a polling feature where those with laptops could click in with their answer, and the poll results are displayed in graph form as they come in. You can either choose to show that graph as the results come in or wait until everyone has voted.  Again, a perfectly fine feature using small groups.

The annotated slides can then be saved as HTML if you’d like to post them to your website, course management system, or email them out.  Students with laptops can also save the slides, complete with their own annotations.

And that’s not all!  =)

You can designate objects on the slide as “instructor only.”  With a PPT add-in, within PPT, you can select an object, say a textbox, and with the click of a button designate that box as something that only you can see on your tablet when you present the slide in class.

Classroom Presenter: PPT Add-in
Classroom Presenter: PPT Add-in
Classroom Presenter: Public View
Classroom Presenter: Public View
Classroom Presenter: Instructor View
Classroom Presenter: Instructor View

At the bottom, the yellow-highlighted text is a textbox with a yellow fill.  I designated that textbox as an ‘instructor note,’ so it only shows for me; notice its absence in the “public view” image above.

There are a couple downsides, but ones I’m willing to live with given the freedom I have and the tablet-friendly presentation.  Classroom Presenter can’t handle animations.  For instance, the blue boxes you see in the graphics above, in PPT, are animations.  When I click them, they disappear, revealing the label underneath.  I thought that would be a hard feature to live without, then it occurred to me (V-8 moment!), I don’t need to move the boxes.  I can just write the label on the box!

A little harder to live without are hyperlinks to websites and video links… and clickers.  I can run the clickers on the desktop carrying the files I need on a flashdrive.  As my colleague (Rich, again), helpfully suggested, I’ve created an HTML file on my flashdrive that holds my hyperlinks, videos, etc., so I can just open that file on the desktop, and move over there when I need to show those.

Did I mention that Classroom Presenter is free?

Check out this 5-minute video on using this program in class courtesy of the University of Washington.

[A heartfelt thank you to my colleague Rich Bankhead for getting me set up with this!]

Here Comes the News

[Update 3/29/2013: While the information in this post is still good, I’ve written a general post about RSS that uses Feedly for illustration. You can find it here.]

[Update 3/17/2013: While Google Reader, discussed below, will be shut down July 1, 2013, RSS is still very much alive.  See this blog post to read about a couple other RSS feed readers.]

How many websites do you visit a day?  When do you find time to go into your college library’s database to look at what’s new in your professional journals?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had your own personal web-butler?  You know, someone who could go visit all of those sites and databases and let you know if there’s anything there you might be interested in?  Ah yes, kick back with your $4 cup of Starbucks coffee, snap your fingers, and your own personal web-butler brings you your news.  Yeah, that would be nice… <sigh>

Good news!  Meet your web-butler: Google Reader.

In fact, there are many different web-butlers at your service, collectively they are called RSS feed readers or news aggregators, but I think web-butler has a certain ring to it.  Some are web-based, like Google Reader.  Others are software you download to your computer.  Actually, you probably already have a feed reader.  MS Outlook and Firefox, for instance, both can read RSS feeds.  In Outlook, you can find “RSS feed” below your inbox, just above your “sent items” folder. In Firefox, they’re called “live bookmarks.”

Lots of webpages have implemented RSS feeds, content that is readily readable by RSS feed readers.  Many post this sporty little icon:

Look for this icon on webpages. It tells you an RSS feed is available.
Look for this icon on webpages. It tells you an RSS feed is available.

[For the curious, RSS is an abbreviation for Really Simple Syndication.  And it is really simple.  So simple, in fact, you don’t need to know how it works.  Just trust your web-butler to handle it.

In the end, which RSS feed reader you choose comes down to personal preference.  Is it easy for you to use?  Great!  You’ve found the one for you!

I like a web-based feed reader because I can access it from my work computer or my home computer… or my Wii, if I’m so inclined.  The downside to most web-based readers is that you have to have internet access to read your news feeds.  One of the reasons I like Google Reader is that I can read my news feeds offline by using Google Gears, an addin for Firefox and IE.  When I reconnect to the internet, Google Reader takes the information from my computer and updates my feeds on their site.  For instance, at the airport before boarding, I visit my Google Reader page so my computer has the most up-to-date feeds, then I click a little button, and it switches me to offline use.  Once we reach our cruising altitude, I get caught up on the news, blogs, etc.  I even can mark articles from my professional journals that I’d like to read later.

Since Google Reader is the one that works best for me, I’ll be talking about how you can get set up with it.  But all readers work in basically the same way.  Subscribe to a news feed.  Read the news feed.

Here’s the one-minute overview courtesy of Google Reader:

My Google Reader
My Google Reader

On the left you can see some of the feeds I’m subscribed to.  The ones in bold are the ones with unread content; the number in parentheses tells me how many unread items are in that feed.  On the right is content from some of my unread feeds.

A lot of faculty are unaware that their library’s databases have RSS feeds.  For instance, in the image above, I have an “APA” folder that has two APA journals in it.  Google Reader retrieves each journal’s table of contents giving me the title, author, journal info and some journals even give me the abstract.  Clicking the article title takes me directly to the article in my library’s database.

To subscribe, visit your library’s website, and open your favorite database.  Locate the journals, magazines, or newspapers you are interested, and look for the orange RSS icon.

Library Database Title List
Library Database Title List

Click the icon.  An additional box may pop up and you may need to click the feed link to get to the page where you click the button to add to Google Reader.  Alternatively, you can copy the feed URL, go to Google Reader and click the blue “Add a subscription” button, then paste in the URL.

If you find this blog helpful, consider adding it your feed reader.  Just click the RSS icon on this page!

A word of warning.  Do not feel like have to read everything!  Your RSS feed reader is not going to pass judgment on you if you don’t read absolutely everything it brings you.  Think of this as your personalized newspaper, but just like any newspaper, you are not going to read everything.  And that’s okay!

Oh, one more thing.  People often wonder how you delete individual items inside a news feed.  In Google Reader, you don’t.  They just get marked as read when you read them.  That means that everything that came to you in a news feed in Google Reader is searchable.

Use Google Reader for work, but don’t forget to have a little fun!

LOL Dogs

Online Collaboration the Quick and Easy Way

For online collaboration, there are Google Docs and Zoho.  Both are tools that allow collaboration on word processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides, among others.  This is ‘cloud’ computing — moving files off desktops and into the internet cloud.  Both seem to try to mimic as much of the desktop experience as possible.

But if you want quick and easy (no logins, no ‘sharing’ of files and folders) click-a-link-and-go online collaboration, ScribLink and EtherPad TitanPad may be exactly what you’re looking for. Both of these are great for working with students during virtual office hours as well as collaborating with colleagues.

If you’ve tried either of these, please let me know how they worked for you!

EtherPad TitanPad [Updated 2/14/2011 : Etherpad as a website has gone away, but the software lives on in a number of places, such as TitanPad.]

If all you want to do is collaborate on writing text in real time, EtherPad TitanPad is an excellent choice.

EtherPad
EtherPad

This is real time editing.  As you type, all others in the room can see what you’re typing, and more than one person may type at once.

There is a chat box for communication, although one user testimonial on the EtherPad TitanPad site says that when their team meets, they open EtherPad and login to a conference call.

You may save as you go, and those revisions are saved in perpetuity.

This is a very simple little program that does exactly what it needs to do and nothing more.

Do you have a student who is having trouble with a paper?  Meet with them in real time to discuss the problem areas (they can copy and paste their paper into EtherPad TitanPad) and watch as they make the edits or offer your own suggestions.    Do colleagues come to meetings with laptops in hand?  Have everyone join you on your EtherPad TitanPad to keep meeting minutes or if you’re working on rewriting policy, use EtherPad TitanPad to wordsmith.

Update (9/7/09): Etherpad added a new feature called a “time slider.” Etherpad now ‘records’ your edits as you go. Use the time slider to play back all the changes made.

Scriblink

When you visit the Scriblink website, this is the screen you see.  With a quick glance you can see that Scriblink is more involved than EtherPad.

Scriblink: Blank screen
Scriblink: Blank screen

Scriblink boasts an intuitive interface, which is great because there doesn’t appear to be a user’s manual.

Everyone who is in the room can use all of the features… at the same time.

The tools include:

  • Drawing tools (marker, straight line, square, circle), text, eraser, and grid (which turns the entire white board into graph paper).  Change the color of the drawing tools, the color of the background, and the size of the drawing tool.
  • Math symbols (click the pi button) using Latex; click on the image to embed the equation you created. [Note: This feature didn’t work in Firefox for me.  When I told Firefox to simulate IE, it worked perfectly.]
  • Upload images. Be aware that to upload images you need to have popups enabled.  If you enable popups after you already have content on the whiteboard, your screen may refresh and your whiteboard may go back to its original, unwritten upon state.

On the far right of the screen are the communication tools.  Users are automatically numbered as they arrive, but you can certainly change your name.  An interesting feature is that your name changes color as you change the color of your drawing tool.  To invite people, you can either “Get URL” and send that out via email, IM, or whatever way you’d like, or you email directly from the scriblink page.

When you are done, you can save the file. In which case, the file is saved on the Scriblink servers, and they’ll email you a link to access it.  To print, Scriblink loads a new webpage where it rotates the (png) image 90 degrees in a nice printable format.   Finally, by clicking “send” you can email the weblink to whomever you’d like and include a little message with it.

“Send file” allows you to send a file from your computer, say a spreadsheet, to everyone in the room.

The chat window is straight-forward.  Type to chat. If you’d rather talk, there is a VOIP and free phone conference (long distance rates apply) option, although I confess to having not used either of these features.

Here I have used some of the Scriblink features:

Scriblink
Scriblink

The only thing I find cumbersome about this program is that once something is on the board, there isn’t a way to select it as an ‘object,’ grab it, and move it.  With the equation editor and image uploads, when they are first brought onto the whiteboard, you can move them, but once they’ve been placed, they are not going anywhere.  You’re only options are the eraser (use the size control to change the size of the eraser), the undo button, or to clear the entire whiteboard.

In March 2009, the Scriblink folks wrote that they “have some huge announcements on the horizon,” but the nature of those announcements were unspecified.

As a side note, I first used Scriblink in the fall of 2008 while on sabbatical in Georgia.  A friend of mine joined me for a rousing game of vice presidential bingo.  I found bingo cards online, took screen shots of two of them, saved them to my computer, then uploaded them into scriblink.  We each chose a different color marker and marked our bingo cards as we watched the debate from our respective coasts.  I confess that I did make an attempt to erase her marks without her knowing it, but she caught me.

Update on 5/11/2010. Etherpad has officially closed its virtual doors.  But there are others you can try.  MeetingWords looks pretty much like Etherpad.  Check out this CNET blog post for additional suggestions.

Welcome!

Let me start with my ‘blog goal’ and a little bio.

I have a minor addiction to new technology.  But not just any technology.  I’m looking for technology (ideally, free) that either makes my job easier or makes it easier for my students to learn.

Yes, I have students. I started teaching college students in Kansas as a grad student back in 1989, and I’m still teaching college students, but now in the beautiful Pacific Northwest at Highline Community College.  If you’ve ever flown into Seattle, you’ve likely flown over my campus.

The tools I’ll be talking about aren’t always ones I’ve tried with my classes.  I don’t believe in using new technology just for the sake of using new technology.  It has to serve a pedagogical purpose.  But just because a tool doesn’t work for what I’m trying to accomplish doesn’t mean it’s not useful for someone else.  For example, psychology is my area, so I don’t have much need for math tools that can handle calculus, but when I come across such tools, I’ll be sure to fill you in.

Some of the technologies I’ll discuss are well-established tools.  Others are hot off the press; so hot, that they may still be in beta testing.  Although, keep in mind that Google Docs and Gmail are both, technically, still in beta testing.   ‘Beta testing’ has more meaning in some circles than others.

Your comments are most welcome!  If you’ve tried some of the technologies mentioned in this blog, let me know how they worked for you.  If you’re trying to solve a particular pedagogical issue and are having trouble finding the right tool, let me know.  If you come across a new tool that you think should get an airing here, let me know.

With that as a quick introduction, let’s get to the content!