Tech reviews: A few of my favorite things

Oprah has her favorite things, but if you want to be nit picky about it, this post is not intended to emulate her. I was actually thinking of Maria von Trapp, or rather, of Julie Andrews’ singing about a few of Maria’s favorite things. She liked kittens. I, on the other hand, like kittens on YouTube. I think of myself as a tech savvy individual. I own a MacBook, I can program a DVR, and I have several twitter accounts, which I manage somewhat efficiently using a twitter client. However, ever since I came to Trinity University, I’ve come to realize that I had overestimated my savvy. Sure, I could insert video into a PowerPoint slide, and I also had my own blog, but that was the extent of my use of technologies in the classroom, and I was fine with that.

Until I came to Trinity, that is. And it is not just because now I can afford a Blackberry with the data plan (as opposed to salivating every time I saw one of my friends updating Facebook from their Blackberry). The timing was just right, as I arrived as Trinity was transitioning to the cloud. Yup, we are one of the schools who are using Google apps.

Tmail, Trinity’s version of gmail, is probably the one app we are all using on campus. It’s just like Gmail, and very soon we’ll be able to switch between Gmail and Tmail without having to log off and on. GoogleDocs is also part of the suite available at Trinity. I have discussed some aspects of GoogleDocs  in a previous post, and I will be writing some more on the challenges I’ve encountered using it in a future entry. This time I just want to discuss my other favorite Web 2.0 technologies, and how I’m using them.

Prezi: presentations beyond powerpoint.

Prezi is definitely at the top of my list. Prezi is a presentation tool, and it is far more versatile than Power Point. Indeed, powerpoint limits you to slides, whereas Prezi gives you an entire canvas to fill up with your ideas, and you can organize your thoughts as you would do if you were creating a mind map. In terms of design, Prezi includes 10 different templates, and you can also create your own style sheet. Finally, Prezis are very dynamic, since you can add video, and create basic animations. For example, this is a Prezi that I created to discuss the future of newspapers with my intro to mass media students.

As much as I like this tool, Prezis have limitations. The main one is that you can only embed video from YouTube. Furthermore, if you want to embed audio, you have to convert your file to FLV or SWF format. Also, wordpress does not embed Prezis, unless you use the gigya shortcode. That can be really frustrating, especially if you are not familiar with coding. However, the beauty of the web is that, if you keep at it, you can always find someone who figured out the solution to your computing problem. I guess this is why one of my colleagues, Aaron Delwiche, says that we can all be programmers now.

Dropbox: File storage on the cloud

I’ve had my MacBook for a couple of years. I wrote my dissertation on it, and I use it more than any other technology that I own. Last spring, I started getting a little concerned about the age of my computer. I’ve heard the horror stories before, about people losing all their files to a hard crash of their hard drive, or God forbid, the death of their mother board. At that point, I had almost completed my dissertation, and even though I had several copies scattered around in flash drives and emails, I felt it was time to back up everything. I did what most people would do. I bought an external hard drive, formatted it for the Mac, and dragged and dropped everything to it. I’m glad I did. As it turned out, my hard drive did die. However, I have never been able to use my external hard drive on a PC. Since that is what I have at the office, that’s actually an issue.

Or it was, until I heard about Dropbox.[1]

With Dropbox, you can synch any number of computers and/or mobile devices to your dropbox, and any files you save, change, and/or delete from your dropbox folder will update automatically across devices and platforms. Dropbox offers 2GB of free cloud storage, and you can get an additional 250 MB of space by referring your friends. Moreover, if you register a .edu account, Dropbox will give you 500 MB per referral. You can invite your friends directly, or you can share your referral link with anyone. Here is mine. Feel free to use, or not.

This is my dropbox, or rather, how my dropbox looks like online. However, it is not how I use it the most. I’ve downloaded and installed the dropbox desktop client on my home and office computers. This creates a folder on my hard drive, and it automatically updates and synchs everything to the most recent version. As long as I remember to close the files, they will synch.

If 2GB is too little for your needs, take a look at SugarSynch. It is basically the same service, but with 5GB of space for free. I’ve installed it, but haven’t really used it yet. However, here is a review of SugarSynch, by Shep McAllister for HackCollege. He actually has used it uses it. I merely have it on my laptop, but have yet to do anything with it.

Evernote: “Have you noticed me taking pictures of the your handouts?”

When it comes to technology, I’d take cues from Shep any day. Shep writes for  HackCollege, which is a version of Lifehacker for the college crowd. Shep was a student of mine at Trinity.  Last fall, he asked me if I had noticed him taking pictures of the my handouts.

I had not noticed, and I even felt a little inept. Shouldn’t I be able to see such things going on in my classroom? I supposed that if I had a strict no-technology rule, I probably would have. It also would have helped to have X-ray vision, since I teach in an amphitheater-style lecture hall. While it isn’t ungodly large, you would have to constantly walk up and down the room if you want to keep track of what everyone is doing. I hardly ever do.

In any case, Shep was actually digitizing his notes. He’d take a quick picture of a handout, and upload it to Evernote.

Evernote is note-taking 2.0. You can type, scan, or record notes directly to your favorite device. I have since tried it on my blackberry (a little cumbersome, since I’m still getting used to the virtual keyboard on the torch, which I insist on using just because I have it), the iPad, and my laptop..

Now, I know that I could share files, if I wanted to, directly from Dropbox. However, with Evernote I can compile different materials into a single note, and then organize the notes into shared notebooks. So far, I’ve created two of these. I use them upload recordings from lectures, annotated PDFs that I use for my own class prep[2], assorted videos, and links to prezis. I think of it as my very own academic smorgasbord. This is what one of my Evernote shared notebooks looks like.

So far, the only drawback I’ve had using Evernote is that I can’t record a full lecture directly to an audio note. I tried it once, and could only capture about 10 minutes of semi-coherent rambling [3] before I exceeded the space limit for the Blackberry app. I don’t have this issue if I simply use Blackberry’s own voice notes recorder. I can tape the whole thing, and then upload to Evernote. Once up there, I can access the content from any computer, share it, and if I’m feeling especially ambitious, I can convert the audio files to MP3s, clean them up on garage band or audacity, and voila! I have a podcast.[4]

These are tools that I use daily, but they are not the only technologies that are available for instructional use. If you know of any cool tools, please let me know.


[1]I actually learned about Dropbox from Aaron Delwiche.
[2]Preview (for the Mac) now allows you to annotate PDFs. NitroPDF, on the other hand, is a good solution for the PC, as it can upload directly to Evernote. There is no NitroPDF version for the Mac.
[3] Sometimes I honestly wonder what the students think of the rambling. This was especially true when I decided to discuss encoding/decoding.
[4]This is the first semester that I’ve made recordings, with permission from the students. I decided to do it because for the first time I have several students who are entitled to special accommodations. This is one way in which I can provide that.