Tag Archives: tools

Production Notes: Insight Into Building an Effective Online Course

What all goes into online course construction?  How much work is it and what skills do you need?  What are the best tools for the job?  And what makes for effective online learning? The following video segments take a stab at answering these questions.

My colleague Natasha Collette and I decided to video record a conversation between us about the making of the online course Making Science and Engineering Pictures (MITx 0.111x).  The two of us worked together, with our friend and colleague, Felice Frankel (the course’s instructor), in 2015.  I’ve blogged about the course earlier – documenting the tools we used, the student voices, and the live event we staged, but these recorded conversations between us will provide behind-the-scenes insight into the course’s construction.

Video 1:  Natasha’s Background

Video 2:  Developing Effective Online Learning

Video 3:  Thoughts on Workflow and Process

Video 4;  Production Tools

Video 5: What are Motion Graphics?

Video 6:  The Importance of Telling a Story

Video 7:  Our Lessons Learned

Video 8:  The Value of the Team

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Ten Tools Challenge: Prezi (Tool #2)

"I accept your challenge!"

“I accept your challenge!”

In January, I decided to take up Jane Hart’s Ten Tools Challenge.  I’ve already blogged about my Tool #1, Explain Everything, and here is my tool #2 (ok, ok I’m a bit behind schedule):  Prezi.

As many of you know, Prezi is a zooming presentation tool – an alternative to PowerPoint and Keynote.  It lives online and, with a free account, you can create your own Prezis that also live online (or you can download them to your desktop).  Here’s a good example of a well crafted prezi, featured on the Prezi site, to give you a feel for what’s possible.

While I’ve used Prezi in the past, I’ve just recently surfaced from a Prezi-deep-dive –  five presentations (on wildly different topics) in one month.  So it seems like a good time to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses.

First, a little about how Prezi works.  Unlike Keynote and PowerPoint, where the navigational metaphor is a series of index cards or slides to progress through one to the next to the next, a Prezi presentation exists on a large (endless) canvas.  You plop content (text, images, video) down on the canvas in any order and then create a pathway through your content.

So here’s a sample from a recently built Prezi::

Part of a Prezi, showing various content pieces in a frame.

Part of a Prezi, showing various content pieces in a frame.

The blue circle is a “frame” and the little content bits and bobs within the blue circle are all related to the topic of that particular frame. Once you upload your content into the frame, you then decide in what order to display them. Here’s that same frame of content, with the “pathway” turned on.

Same Prezi frame, with the editing path turned on.

Same Prezi frame, with the editing path turned on.

With that as backdrop, here’s what I think are the advantages of using Prezi:

Easy modification. Whenever I am asked to give a talk, I usually reconfigure the content to reflect the interests of the group. Sometimes I add new information, cut back on less relevant things, or change the order to accommodate schedules. By having all of my content on one canvas, I can easily change the pathway and modify for a new audience. All the content is still there (on the canvas) but may not be included in this particular pathway.

Focused attention. The zooming capability makes it possible to focus the viewers’ attention and indicate emphasis in a dynamic, visual way.  This is particularly useful when you want to emphasize forest-to-trees relationships.

Visual context. If used well, Prezi can help you do a better job of using physical space to assist your audience and help them remember how the parts of your talk relate to each other.

Easy importing.  You can import a PowerPoint slide deck to Prezi.  While the import function works well, you have to massage the slides to take advantage of the zooming and other features.  Keep in mind that animation effects you created in PPT, won’t survive the import.

Easily displayed and shared online.  Since Prezi is an online tool, it is easy to neatly (without ads or distractions) embed it, display it, or share a link. Of course, you can use SlideShare or Speaker Deck to do that with PPT and Keynote files.  Oh, there’s a Prezi iPad app too.

Helpful tutorials. Prezi’s done a very good job with video tutorials and masterful cheat sheets on their website.  Nicely done.

And now the disadvantages:

It’s a bit gimmicky.  If you want to be precise about it, Prezi is still a linear presentation tool.  Afterall, you are just proceeding along nodes on a linear path. Those that complain about death-by-PowerPoint could still complain about death-by-Prezi.  But I do feel that using this tool urges me on to be more visual in my thinking.

You don’t own it. Because your presentation lives online, it’s got all the advantages and disadvantages of a cloud-based existence.  Namely, you can access it from any where and easily share it.  But, you could also loose it (Prezi could go belly up).

Size limitations. Prezi works on a Freemium model. The free public version gives you 100MB of storage space (enough for 4 or 5 Prezis).  To get 500MB of storage space you have to pay $59/year.  (2GB for $159/year).  I found the limits of my free allotment when I created a Prezi that included four short video segments.

Motion Sickness.  Some people complain that swooping Prezi’s give them a headache or make them feel slightly nauseous.  As one prone to motion sickness myself, I’m always careful to limit the amount of swooping and turning. Using frames, being judicious about effects, and strategically positioning your content (shortening the path points) makes this easy to control.

As you can see, advantages and disadvantages.  I would say that when I sit down to create a PPT or Keynote “deck”, I always just open the application and start plunking things down.  With Prezi, my first instinct is to create a storyboard, so that I can understand the whole of what I’m trying to accomplish before I get into the trap of bulleted-list thinking…and that just feels like a good thing.


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Learning in Action: Interview #4 with Ruth Gleicher

The Dunes project with Niles West High School

For about a month now, I’ve been blogging about an ongoing project with Ruth Gleicher, a high school biology teacher at Niles West High School, just outside Chicago.  You can read the first two posts here and here. Bascially, I’ve been riding along while Ruth has re-invented an ecological succession project, that she normally does with her AP Biology students. She wanted to give the project some new juice, incorporate web 2.0 tools into, and weave some formative assessment into the plan. With each major step in the project, I’ve interviewed Ruth to find out how it went, what she’s learned, and how the students have responded.  Here are the recorded interviews:

And here are the documents she refers to in the interviews:

The storyboarding guide:  storyboardfordunesproject.

The project’s RAFT rubric:  DunesRAFTrubric.

The reading guide:  readingguideindianadunes.

Ruth’s Posterous space

Her students went on their field trip to the Indiana Dunes in September and have now completed their projects. The assignment was to tell the succession story of the Indiana Dunes to an audience of your choosing (making a connection between you, as the narrator, and your audience).  The students had multiple web 2.0 tools to choose from when creating their story – some created digital books, some shot video, some created comics, and still others did VoiceThreads.  You can find the students’ posted projects on their class blog site (pictured above). Without exception, they are creative and wonderful expressions of the students’ understanding of succession.  I was truly impressed by how much time and effort the students put into their work.

One of Ruth’s observations, now that the project is complete, is that she feels she has a much better handle on what her students know (and do not know) about succession.  In other words, their projects were deeper, authentic expressions of what they knew and understood.

Unfortunately, the formative assessment part of the plan didn’t go so well.  The students had two weeks between posting their project and the point at which Ruth would grade them. She encouraged them to comment on each other’s work and recruited a few other biology teachers to post comments.  Most of the students got 2 or 3 comments but, unfortunately, they didn’t respond to them nor did they opt to revise their project in light of the feedback (even though there were some specific issues to address). Ruth’s take is that this formative assessment loop is not a familiar path for her students – once an assignment is turned in, that’s the end of it. She’s eager for ideas to help encourage this important aspect of the project so if any of you have suggestions, please comment below – we’d love to hear them.

I also wanted to reflect on the way that Ruth and I have been working together. It’s interesting to tally up the many ways Ruth we productively used new media tools as we worked.

Skype:  Ruth and I used Skype for our planning conversations and for the interviews.  Since the voice were coming through my computer, I could easily record the conversation and then post the recordings online.

WireTap:  I use this regularly to record audio – it’s a wonderful, versatile, and fool-proof piece of recording software.

Google Docs:  Ruth posted all of her student worksheets and rubrics as Google Docs which made it easy for me to edit and add suggestions. It also made it easy for the students to access them – they could either save and then print them as PDFs or Word docs, or they could save a copy and create their own version of the original, also a Google Doc, so they could modify it, write in their answers, online.  Having the activity’s documents online will also make it easy for Ruth to share her work with other teachers.

VoiceThread:  A few of the students used VoiceThread for their projects.  They uploaded digital images taken on the field trip and added their own narration to the images to tell their succession story.

Issuu.  Quite few of the students used Issuu for their projects to make online books – Ruth’s speculation was that this was the easiest of the tools for the students to use and required much less work.

Pixton.  A few of the students created comic books, using Pixton, for their projects. This was the tool that Ruth was first drawn to.  She particularly liked the way you could add comic drawings to real photos to tell a story.

Posterous.  Ruth used this free application to create a publicly accessible blog site where her students could post their finished projects – all in one online spot – so that others could see them and comment. By posting the projects and specifically marking out time for peer review, Ruth is emphasizing important elements of the scientific process (as well as good writing) – multiple drafts, reshaping one’s ideas based on the meaningful input of peers and outside experts, editing, proofreading, and refinement. And since the projects are all online, and easily accessible, she’s erased the boundaries of the 50-minute class and the limits of getting feedback from those in attendance at Niles West HS.

Thanks, Ruth – it’s been a really good learning experience and great fun as well!


Filed under Teaching with Technology

Handheld Wireless Microscope

My hair - as seen through the lens of a handheld, wireless microscope

That’s my hair.  Up close and personal.  As viewed through the lens of a handheld, wireless digital microscope.  That image of my hair was sent wirelessly from the microscope (as I held it to my head), across the room, to my waiting iPhone, and uploaded to my computer to be placed in this blog post.


So, here’s how it works… I downloaded the free Airmicro app from iTunes onto my iPhone and configured the wireless settings.  You could also upload the images to your laptop or desktop computer, of course. The microscope, called aProScope, is small and light (very portable).  It has a built-in light source and you can purchase interchangeable lenses (10x, 30x, 50x, 100x, 400x).  The device can be used in “touch view” mode (touch the specimen you want to examine) or “distance view”, giving you a half inch distance between the microscope cone and the specimen.  In distance view, you can mount the microscope on a stand, giving you a great way to project dissections up on a computer screen (and record them) or as a document reader.

The company’s website has a number of interesting looking activities, labs and lesson plans but if you really want to hear the full scoop on teaching with this tool, you should be in touch with Sheri Wischusen (Louisiana State University) who has been putting it through its paces.

Here are a few other images I grabbed with the Proscope – any guesses on what they are?

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Mirrors Within Mirrors

Photo credit: Azarius

Do you remember that strange, recursive effect, when you are sitting in a barber shop or hair-cutting salon and there is a mirror in front of you and a mirror behind you?  Mirrors within mirrors within mirrors….very Godel, Escher, Bach. Or maybe more like Alice in Wonderland….

Well, I just created the same effect, but this time in the virtual world.  Thanks to my buddies at Tools.Jam (organized every week by the amazing Jenn Forager, Tuesdays at 12:30 EST), I learned about a desktop sharing application called YuuGuu. This is not a free application, but they do have a free 7-day trial.  So I signed up, downloaded the app, and started up a desktop sharing session (you can have as many as 30 people in your session).  YuuGuu gives you a url and a PIN to share with those you are inviting to gaze at your desktop.  Then I fired up Second Life, rezzed a media screen, and plopped the YuuGuu url into the web-on-a-prim address field.  Zooming in on the screen, I entered the PIN number and hit the “connect” button…and voila!  There I was, as my avatar, Spiral Theas, looking at Spiral Theas on Robin’s desktop.  I think my head is going to explode. Dang, that’s cool

Spiral Theas, looking at Spiral Theas on Robin's desktop.


Filed under Tools, Virtual Worlds

Digital Photos and Photo Tools

With digital cameras so reasonably priced and a digital camera in nearly every cell phone, it’s becoming more reasonable to include student-generated images into your teaching/learning plans.  Capturing, editing, producing, and mashing up images can be a great way to engage students – and, depending on the way you set it up, an intriguing performance of understanding.

With that in mind, here are a few free, online photo tools and resources to add into the mix:

Flickr:  Of course.  The mother of online photo sharing sites.  But what you might not know is that Flickr has a pretty impressive tools collection – make sets, groups, put photos on a map.  Also, there’s a cheerful number of third-party flickr tools to investigate that extend Flickr’s usefulness.

SlideFlickr: Create and embed slideshows of Flickr images.

Five-Card Flickr: Nice creativity tool – create a story out of five flickr images that you pick.

Cooliris:  A very slick photo storage, browsing, and sharing application.  Displays as a 3D wall in your browser. It’s free, but does require a download.

fotoflexer:  Browser-based image editor, with 2GB storage.

PhotoFunia:  Online photo editing tool allows you to upload an image and apply effects.

Bubblesnaps or Photo Balloon Engine:  Add speech bubbles to photographs.

Cloudcanvas:  With paint, brushes, textures, primitive shapes, layers, filters, and page layout options, anyone can create online digital paintings.

Blabberize:  Add lips and a moving mouth to any photo, record some speech, and your photos can talk.

Create a Magazine Cover:  With this tool, you can custom-create a magazine cover, using your own, uploaded image.

Fliptrack:  Create online slide shows and invite people to view, add to it, edit photos or effects  -while the original stays in tact.  Nice opportunity for online collaboration using images.

GICKR:  Create an animated GIF from an uploaded photo.

Animoto:  One of my all-time favs.  Upload your photos, pick a song from their library (or upload your own), press a button and you have an special effects “short” made of your images.

Skitch:  Make and modify screen shots.  Very handy for creating student instructions for getting into an online tutorial or web site.

Spell with Flickr:  you can write text in letters based off Flickr images with this.

Picsearch:  Powerful photo search engine that allows you to specify interesting particulars.

Histografica:  Find historical pictures of places around the world.

Geotag Your Photos:  Here’s an article explaining how to geotag your images with Google Maps.

PicResize:  Crop and resize any uploaded image.

Have fun – and share what you figured out!

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A diptic of morning glories, taken on my back deck

Yet another cool iPhone App (will the fun never stop?!).  This one is called Diptic and it allows you to juxtapose two photos, combining them in one final image.  You can control the arrangement (horizontal/vertical), positioning, and borders – along with a few minor effect controls.  Export the image as a single entity – email it right from your iphone or save it in your camera roll for later download.  Sweet.

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Edchat Twitter Stream

If you’re an educator, looking for a reason to get up to speed on Twitter, take a look at Edchat.  This is a live event that happens each Tuesday at  two times – 12pm EST/ 5pm GMT and 7pm EST/ 12pm GM – on Twitter.  Educators from all over the world chime in with their answers to a question, proposed by the organizers,  Stephen Anderson, Tom Whitby, and Shelly Terrell.

Here is Shelly’s blog post, describing Edchat. Each week, the Edchat topic is voted on by the group.  You can send suggestions to Shelly, Tom or Stephen and then, on Monday of each week, they post five possible topics.  The topic with the most votes becomes the Edchat topic for that Tuesday.  Any Tweet that bears the hashtag – #edchat – will appear in the stream.  You can either search on the hashtag to pick up the stream, run it through an RSS feed, or if you’re using Tweetdeck (a sort of dashboard for Twitter), you can set up a column just for that steam.  Here’s a video tutorial on how to use Tweetdeck to monitor the stream.

If you have questions about how it works, you can get in touch with the moderators. For the 12pm EST #Edchat the moderators are @ShellTerrell and @Rliberni. For the 7pm EST Edchat the moderators are @MBTeach, @KylePace, and @TomWhitby.

People pose questions and answer them. They contribute suggestions, links, anecdotes, and arguments.  It’s a very lively bunch. In addition to the quality of the Tweets (mostly quite high), what struck me most was the power of the medium.  Here I was, in my own home, listening to 1000’s of smart, savvy educators – from all over the world – chime in on a conversation about a topic that interested me.  It’s the kind of experience you live for when you attend a national conference – that chance meet up in hallway or over a beer, where a group of interesting professionals gather for a few moments and exchange really helpful ideas about something important.  But this “meet up” was scheduled and it included 1000’s – and I didn’t have to get on a plane to listen in. A global brainstorming session, with (according to “what the trend“) 3500 contributions.

I was also struck by the courtesy of the group.  People responded to each other, supported concerns, and thanked each other for suggestions. No flamers here – what a welcome change.

Of course, it’s not perfect.  During the hour that I sat, scanning my Tweetdeck stream, I found myself getting irritated over the number of retweets (people forwarding on a Tweet they liked), resulting in bombardment with the same Tweet over and over again.  As you’d expect, there are a few spammers or advertisers that get in there (not too bad).  There are a few ridiculous comments that don’t bear mentioning.  But, on the whole, there’s some extremely good stuff.  I would say that, over the course of the hour, I learned a large handful of things I’d never heard before, laughed over a few very poignant stories, linked out to at least 50 different web sites (most of which were extremely useful), and choose 4 or 5 new people to follow in my regular Twitter stream.  There were teachers taking polls (trying to get a feel for opinions or patterns), teachers trolling for ideas (first day suggestions, how to use classroom blogs,

Fortunately, the organizers have developed a wiki site to accompany their Twitter live event.  There, you’ll not only find a directory of all the active Edchat participants (including their email addresses and interests) but a complete transcript of each Edchat session, listed by date. Here’s the transcript from this week’s Edchat session, “Should teachers have students write blogs, develop class web sites/wikis, create student PLNs?”

To help with the retweeting problem, I turned to Paper.Li, which is a nifty online tool that turns a particular Twitter stream into an online newspaper, complete with categories and highlights.  You can read more about Paper.Li in this blogpost of mine, from a few weeks ago.  This was a great way to read the #Edchat stream because it eliminates the redundancies, promoting most mentioned items to headline status.  Great way to see all the videos together as well.  Here’s what this week’s Edchat looks like in Paper.Li:

The organizers have also started a Personal Learning Network (PLN), using Ning, for those educators who want to continue the conversation.  On the Ning site, I see that some educators have formed subgroups to start projects at their own schools or carry on a conversation about a related topic.  Nice. And here’s where I get to repeat a frequent (not-original) conclusion of mine – these participatory media tools are so much more powerful when they are used in combination with each other.  In this case…. Twitter, a Ning site, and a wiki.  Magic.

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The Best Camera is the One That’s With You

Morning Glory Bud - Taken with BestCamera and My iPhone

Thanks to Kirsten Loza for turning me onto Best Camera – the title of this post is their tag line, which makes me smile every time I open the app.  It’s a very handy little iPhone app that gives you one-stop shopping for filters, cropping (och, only to a square), and sharing (Flickr, Twitter, email, and Facebook). I particularly like the way that you can stack the filtering effects to get something really unique.  Just took this one of the unruly morning glory vine that is conquering my back deck.

And here’s the same bloom, taken an hour later (at 8:40 am), using the blue filter….lovely.

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Tagxedo: A New Word Picture Tool

My Blog on Tagxedo

I just discovered a new tag cloud creator (or word-picture tool) – Tagxedo.  This is a free online application that allows you to make word pictures (or clouds) where the most oft-used words appear largest.  This is a good way to get a visual “feel” for a particular text chunk, document, or web site.

Tagxedo is similar to Wordle, but much more powerful with many additional capabilities. First off,  as you roll over the online Tagxedo with your mouse, the words come to the front and you can make them live links.  You can also spin your cloud, choose different themes (many available), select different colors & fonts, and constrain the word-picture by shapes (hearts, ovals, circles). The cloud to the right (made up of my blog’s contents), is made from the same words as the cloud at the top of the page – this time in the shape of a flower. You can structure it so that you skip words (removing unimportant words, like “the”). Apparently, you can also use photos to create the shapes – like this one of Abe Lincoln.  I haven’t tried that yet, but it certainly presents some interesting possibilities. Once you’re created your Tagxedo cloud, you can save it as an image – in both jpg and png formats – at a range of resolutions.  What fun.

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