Feb 112011

[UPDATE: See this more recent post on Join.Me’s newest features.]

Let’s say that you’re working with a few colleagues on a project. They’re scattered across campus (or the country). It may be easier if everyone is looking at the same screen as you review or edit a document, or take notes on the meeting, or debate the value of some webpage. Join.me is a free and easy way to do that. You connect to Join.me. Then give your colleagues the URL you’re given. When they follow it, they see your desktop. Live. It’s as simple as that.

When I connect to Join.me, here is the toolbar I get. At the very top is a URL. That’s the URL that will connect to my computer, but only as long as I’m connected for that session. If you went to that URL now, you’d get an “invalid code” error on the Join.me website. Every time you start a new session, you get a new code.

For communication, you have a few options.

Phone: You can call each other. You can use your own conference call setup. Or you can use Join.me’s built-in conference call system. Clicking the phone icon (same for those connected to your desktop), you get a phone number to call (long distance charges apply, but that’s between you and your carrier; Skype works just fine). The access code to join the call is the same code assigned to your URL. [If you decide to use your own conference call number, you can change the information in Join.me so that your conference call information is given when participants click the phone icon. Check the Join.me conference call page in their FAQ for more information.]

Chat: There’s a built in chat window. If you have it closed, you’ll get a popup when a new chat entry is made. I wouldn’t want to have an entire meeting using chat, but it’s a helpful addition to a phone call.

The pause button freezes your screen for everyone else while you do stuff you don’t want them to see. Hit it again to go live.

The person icon shows you who all is viewing your desktop. Each person comes in as “Viewer #,” except for you. You’re “Presenter.” Participants and presenter can click the person icon, then click on the top viewer (that’s them) to change their name to something more descriptive, like “Bob.” You can have up to 250 participants. I think that’s more than sufficient. That’s a lot of Bobs.

The mouse icon, when other participants are present, lets you give control of your desktop to a participant in the room. For example, if you’re editing a document, and someone has a clear idea of how to word something, give them control of your desktop and just let them do it.

If someone is ticking you off, kick them out. Click the person icon and click the x next to their name.

Limitations: Any sounds you play on your computer cannot be heard by anyone else. If sounds were essential, you could play it over the phone, I suppose.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of features, but it’s enough to get you started! Happy sharing!

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Feb 112011

Is your computer desktop cluttered with icons? Having trouble sorting through them? I recently read one of those blog posts (Digital Inspiration) that makes you go, “I can’t believe that never occurred to me.”

I changed my desktop wallpaper to this minimalist image of a desk and bookcase, then arranged my icons on the bookcase. How cool is that?

(Thanks to Digital Inspiration for the suggestion of putting the computer and recycling bin with the desk.)

Visit this website to get the image. Right click on it and select “Set as Desktop Background.”

Then go to your desktop, right click on any empty space. Under “View,” make sure “Auto arrange icons” and “Align icons to grid” are unchecked. Now arrange them however you’d like.

Icons rearrange themselves?

Because I move from my laptop to monitors at home and monitors in my office, my screen resolution often changes, and the icons get moved around. Before it was a minor annoyance, but with the bookshelves it’s a bigger hassle. After doing much reading, I opted for a little free program called DesktopOK. It keeps track of where my icons are for each screen resolution. If my icons get moved, I can right click on the DesktopOK icon in my taskbar, and choose the resolution I want my icons to restore to.

DesktopOK initially runs in German. Click on “DesktopOK” then under “Sprache,” to select English, or another language of your choosing.

Remove text from icons

Text is nice to have for some icons, like files and folders. But for others, like Dropbox or the recycle bin, the text just clutters stuff up. For the obvious icons, I got rid of the text.

You’re not going to believe the solution to this one. Right click on the icon whose text you want to delete. Select “Rename.” Now press Alt-255, but the numbers have to be selected using your NumPad. On a laptop, you probably have to use something like your function key to turn on your NumPad. (That would be Alt-Fn-kii on my laptop keyboard.) Then hit Enter. The name has disappeared. If you want to do it with another icon, you have to do Alt-255 twice, then Enter. For a 3rd icon? You got it. Alt-255 Alt-255 Alt-255. “Alt-255” is a keyboard shortcut for a space. See more shortcuts here. Even though an icon can’t be named a ‘space’ with the regular spacebar, it can be with the Alt-255 shortcut. What you’re really doing is renaming those icons ‘space,’ ‘space space,’ ‘space space space.’

Other desktop wallpaper organizers

While I’m partial to the bookcase and desk, you might enjoy a bit more pizzazz. Check out these very cool (free) ones from Clay Butler. Here’s a sample of what they look like.

If you’re the adventurous type, you can create your own using any photo editing program.

Happy organizing!

If you come across, or create, a desktop organizer that you really like, add it to the comments on this post. I’d love to see it!

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Feb 052011

[UPDATE 12/12/2012  : Bad news.  JoliPrint is shutting down effective January 4, 2012. Use PrintFriendly.com instead.]

Find an article online that you’d like to print out for your class for discussion that day? JoliPrint takes the webpage content and turns it into an uncluttered PDF.

Here I’ve taken my post on colorizing Windows folders and turned it into a PDF. Pretty, isn’t it?

A couple things to note. The date and time are included at the top of the page. That’s the time in Paris where one of the company’s offices is located. At the bottom of the page is the website’s URL. In the PDF, the link is live. Just click it to go to the website the PDF came from.

How to use it

If you visit the JoliPrint.com website, just paste the URL you want to PDF-ize into the box.

Better yet, drag their JoliPrint button to your browser’s bookmarks toolbar. Whenever you land on a page you want to print as a PDF, click the bookmark, and the page will be saved as a nicely-formatted PDF. Very slick!

At the very bottom of this post, you’ll see a JoliPrint icon. Click that icon to PDF-ize this blog post. Check it out!

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Feb 052011

You’re probably familiar with student response systems (aka clickers). Perhaps you even use PollEverywhere (see this blog post). Both allow you to get feedback from your students in real time. Back channel communication also lets your students communicate with you, but without you asking a question. And everyone else can see what others are saying. In real time.

There are a few different systems out there, but Backchan.nl (open source from MIT; free) is, of the ones I’ve seen, the one I like the most.

What it looks like

Give students the URL. It works fine with both computers and mobile devices. Here’s one I’ve created: http://techworkshop.backchan.nl. That takes you to this screen.


Here’s the QR code for that link if you’d like to see what it looks like on your mobile device.

That link loads the screen below. Students and instructor see almost the same thing. The only difference is that if I log in I get a green checkmark and red x next to each submission. The red x deletes it. The green checkmark marks the submission as addressed, removing it from the main comment area, and moving it to the bottom of the list at the bottom of the screen.

Anyone who is participating can see the comments made by everyone else and can vote the comments up or down. Comments with the most up votes get moved to the top of the screen; those with the most down votes get moved to the bottom. That’s all there is to it. It’s pretty straight forward.

How to create a backchan.nl

When you visit Backchan.nl, there is a “Make a Backchan.nl” button. Clicking it loads this page.

Name: This is the title on the webpage. Username: The URL I’d give students would be http://FrantzPsych100.backchan.nl. Password: I’d use this to log in (to get the green checkmark and red x). [Important: Keep track of your password. There is no way to recover it if you forget it. ] Email: I don’t know why they ask for this. The participants aren’t given it anywhere, and it’s not used to log in to your backchan.nl.

Once created, you’ll be prompted to “add a meeting.” I would then go in and add meetings for each class session.

Now when students follow this URL http://FrantzPsych100.backchan.nl, this is what they’ll see. They just click on the appropriate link, and they’re in.


Moderators. If I didn’t want to monitor the comments while lecturing, I could also give the backchan.nl password to my teaching assistants (if I had any) or a ‘student moderator for the day’ who would alert me to any popular questions or comments.

Use while watching a video. Students could offer their comments or questions during video as a sort of live journal. All of the comments could be addressed afterward or I could pause the video to address the comments or questions.

Quiet students. I wonder if shy students or students who are non-native English speakers would be more inclined to use this forum than to raise their hands in class.

Address comments after class. I could look at all the questions and comments after class and address them in the next class or on my class listserv or discussion board.

Inappropriate comments. In one workshop one participant said that he tried a live twitter feed during class. He said he got a lot of comments like, “Can we leave early today?” Those students were anonymous. To ensure that students log in with their real names, you could offer participation credit for posting comments or questions. Or if you have a moderator, they could just delete those kinds of comments as they appear.

Mobile technology. How many students have the ability to participate in using this technology? I recently (January 2011) asked my students how many of them could access the internet right now in class: 92%.

Useful educational tool or another distraction? Will it work to engage students more with the material or will it be just one more thing that keeps them from paying attention? I don’t know, but it’s an empirical question.



In my future presentations and workshops, I’m going to include this as a communication tool. I know that I’ve been in many presentations where I had a comment or question but didn’t want to interrupt the speaker, and then there wasn’t time at the end for questions.


[Thanks to Richard Byrne at his Free Tech for Teachers blog for the heads up on this technology.]

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Jan 142011

Ever look at your Windows folders and just see a sea of yellow? What if you could color-code your folders?

You have a couple options. Rainbow Folders (free) is an older program that still works just fine in Windows 7. In this post, though, I’m going to cover Folderico (also free) since it’s optimized for Windows 7.

Once downloaded and installed, right click on the folder you’d like to change. Mouse over “Folderico,” then select the icon you’d like to use. I’m going with violet for my Psych 100 folder.

And this is what it now looks like.

To change themes, when you right-click and select Folderico, select “Change theme.” You can choose from these two. (Visit this website to download more themes.) Selecting a theme doesn’t change all of your folders. It just provides the icons you can choose from. You can have folders with different icons from different themes.

Quick tip: If you share folders using Dropbox, the icon Dropbox uses puts two little people in the bottom right corner of the icon as a reminder that this is a shared folder. If you change the icon on a shared folder, the little people will disappear, and you may forget that it is indeed a shared folder. For the sake of simplicity, I recommend against changing those icons. (Still not using Dropbox? Read more about Dropbox.)

Happy color coding!

For the curious, the little green dot in the bottom left corner of my folders is courtesy of Carbonite, my online backup service. That tells me the backup is current for the files in that folder. (While I’m an advocate for Dropbox, the free version of Dropbox limits how much space I have. Since I want my entire hard drive backed up, I use Carbonite which gives me much more space.)

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Jan 092011

You’ve probably heard of microloans. Let’s say a gentleman in Peru needs $1000 to expand his internet café. Through Kiva.org, you can loan him $100. All he needs is another nine like-minded people to do the same to get enough for the expansion. Over time, he pays the money back, money that’s deposited back into your account which you can loan out again if you’d like.

Microvolunteering applies this same concept to volunteering. Sparked connects nonprofits with online volunteers. The volunteer projects vary widely. Some are looking for suggestions, such as how to get more people engaged in their blog, what a mobile app for their nonprofit might do, tips for using social media, how to improve their website. Depending on what you teach, Sparked may provide some interesting group projects for your students.

For example, if you teach web design, small groups could offer suggestions to a nonprofit on how to redesign their website, perhaps even offering the nonprofit some templates to choose from.

If you teach writing, one nonprofit would like to send a thank-you note to their donors and they’re looking for suggestions on what it should say. Sounds like a great project for a writing class!

If you teach psychology, student groups could, based on their knowledge of persuasion, provide suggestions on how an organization could get more people to donate to their cause.

If you teach marketing, there are several nonprofits looking for help in that arena.

With the different kinds of nonprofits and the different kinds of help they need, you’ll likely find one that fits your discipline. What a great way to show students the real-world applications of what they’re learning!

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Jan 072011

In the last few days, well over half the hits on my website are on my Google: AROUND post. From what I can gather, it looks like teachers are emailing this post to each other. That tells me that there’s a serious interest in detecting plagiarism. As a teacher myself, I’m not surprised. Given that interest, I thought I’d point instructors to another piece of technology that can help with plagiarism detection.

The Cloze test was designed as a test of reading comprehension. For an example, check out this website. In short, some words are deleted from the text, say, every 5th word or every 7th word. The task is to fill in the missing words. The stronger one’s reading comprehension, the better one can guess at the missing words.

The test, though, has also been used as a test of plagiarism. If you’ve written the words yourself, you’re more likely to fill in the blanks with what you wrote the first time around. However, if you merely copied and pasted text, you’re going to have a harder time. Standing and Gorassini (1986) conducted two studies. In both, when doing a 5-word Cloze test, where every fifth word was deleted, students were able to fill in the blanks with the original word or its synonym about 85% of the time. When doing the same task with an essay written by someone else, students were correct only 66% of the time in one study and 59% in a second study.

If you suspect plagiarism and opt to give your student a Cloze test, replacing every fifth word with a blank is a pain, especially because you want the blanks to be uniform in size so as not to provide the amount of space available as a clue to the word. Here’s a simple online form that will do it for you: http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/gn/5thwordp.html.

When I paste the top of this blog post into the form, and click ‘submit,’ this is what I get. The top half can be copied, pasted, and printed out for your student to complete. The bottom half shows the missing words in bold print for easy scoring.

A quick word of caution: If students know they will be given this test in advance, they will have an opportunity to review the paper they submitted. The more they read over it, the more words they are likely to guess correctly.

Standing, L. & Gorassini, D. (1986). An evaluation of the Cloze procedure as a test for plagiarism, Teaching of Psychology, 37, 130-132.

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Jan 062011

Having played my share of games like World of Warcraft and Diablo, I’ve been fascinated by the built-in reinforcement of achieving experience points, gaining status by leveling up, acquiring better weapons and armor, and finding treasure. I’ve toyed with the idea of structuring my class in a similar way. My class is point-based, so it’s easy enough to see how that could work. After earning so many points, a student levels up. After completing certain tasks, the student can roll a die for treasure.

But that has always felt like one of those 3am ideas. You know, the ones that you have in the middle of the night that just feels like absolute brilliance, but by the light of day you think, “That’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever had.”

And then I read an article in the NY Times, “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming.” The article asks, “Why are these virtual worlds so much more absorbing than school and work? How could these gamers’ labors be used to solve real-world puzzles? Why can’t life be more like a video game?” The answer is as simple as operant conditioning, “Players get steady rewards for little achievements as they amass points and progress to higher levels, with the challenges becoming harder as their skill increases.” Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, is quoted as saying, “One of the most profound transformations we can learn from games is how to turn the sense that someone has ‘failed’ into the sense that they ‘haven’t succeeded yet.”

Is a test the only opportunity a student has to show that they know the material? Is it a one-time thing, or does the student get multiple opportunities to try? I think about any video game I’ve played, going all the way back to Donkey Kong. I didn’t get just one chance to master a level. I had 3 lives. And if that didn’t do it, there were always more quarters. In my course, there are 2 chances with tests. If you don’t do well on the first test, but do better on the comprehensive final, the final can replace it. It’s a mastery approach, but not by much. I’m convinced there’s a better way, but I haven’t found it yet.

But this blog is about technology. The NY Times article mentions a (free) game called ChoreWars. You set up your party, say your family, and you identify a number of chores, say vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes. To each chore, you assign experience points, the amount of virtual gold that could be earned, the chance of getting treasure and what that treasure might be, and the chance of running into monsters you then have to battle. As you accumulate more points, your character levels up. The virtual gold can be exchanged for real-life rewards. For instance, 100 gold pieces could be exchanged for the right to go to a movie.

But this blog is also about education. I used ChoreWars to create a game for my students. Instead of chores, students earn points, virtual gold, and the chance to win virtual treasure by completing school-related tasks, e.g., attending class, doing the reading assignment, completing the written assignments, meeting with a study group, studying on their own. I told them that playing was completely voluntary, but if it sounded fun to them and they decided to play, I’d play, too. So far I have a couple students who opted to join; we’ll see if they decide to stay with it.

Here are the members of my party.

Clicking the “Adventures” tab takes me to this page. Here are 3 of the tasks. Every time students complete the reading assignment, they click the ‘claim this’ button. They earn 40 experience points, are randomly given between 10 and 40 pieces of gold. They have a 1/3 chance of earning treasure and a 1/5 chance of encountering a monster. As dungeon master, I created the treasures and monsters.

The interface is intuitive. To add a new adventure, click the ‘new adventure’ button at the top of the adventures page. That generates this form.

Name your adventure, put in how many experience points the adventure is worth. Add a description and a location if you’d like. If you add a location, all of the adventures with that same location will be clustered together on the adventures page. Change the relevant stats. When a member of your party claims the adventure, their character’s attributes will increase. Changing the stats for a particular adventure will determine how many points their character’s attributes will increase. For example, for “studying with other people,” I set constitution at medium (takes energy to meet with a group), charisma at high (requires a lot of interaction), intelligence at medium (you have to know stuff), and wisdom at medium (you have to be able to find ways to explain stuff to others).

Enter the amount of gold that can be earned, the percent chance of earning treasure, what those treasures are, the chance of encountering a wandering monster, and who those monsters are. The “adventure status” defaults to active, but you can also ‘retire’ it (say, if an assignment due date has passed), or set it as a quest. A quest is something that only one person can do. Once someone claims a quest, it becomes inactive for everyone else.

I’m going to play with it this quarter to see what it’s like. But I can envision tying real-life rewards to something like virtual gold, something low-stakes, but motivating. For example, I offer a number of extra credit opportunities in my course, but students can only earn a maximum of 7 extra credit points. Perhaps students could trade in 200 gold pieces for the opportunity to earn an additional extra credit point with a maximum of an additional 5 that could be earned, or some such thing. Since ChoreWars operates on the honor system, I don’t want to give students too much incentive to say they’re doing something when they’re actually not.

If you try it out with your students, let me know how it works for you!


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