Category Archives: Technology

Using Prezi to Create Interactive Course Maps

Over the past year, I’ve started using the free online presentation platform Prezi to create interactive course maps. Like most platforms of this kind, it is designed with a corporate user in mind, and its built-in templates are, in my opinion, extremely limited. However, since it is so flexible and customizable, once you get some experience with it, you can do some pretty cool stuff. The 3-D navigation means that you can create non-linear presentations that students can explore according to their own needs and interests, rather than flipping through Power Point slides. And it means that I can show relationships among various course concepts and assigned texts in multiple dimensions.

The following timeline for my American Literature survey is designed to show historical relationships, to introduce key periods and styles, and to provoke (by arrangement along the vertical axis) reflection about the canon.

This presentation, by the way, is public, so you can copy it and use it as a template for your own course. Several instructors on Prezi already have.

This second course map for my American Realism class is a lot less complex in terms of design, but I like the way it looks. I primarily used it to introduce each author on the syllabus and suggest jumping off points for discussion.

In a future post, I’ll talk about how students used Prezi to create their own final projects.

The Millenial Whisperers

Over at The Chronicle, a forum post on using technology to teach Millenials has been sitting at the top of the queue for quite a while.  The discussion is interesting to me, as I happen to be a bit of a tech geek, but there’s something curious about the way the conversation is often framed both in this thread and elsewhere.  The OP posits that “Millennials are supposed to be quite different from the previous generation” in their use of technology.  The video linked to the post describes them as “digital natives,” a generation that has grown up amid digital technologies and social media, but as a member of a tech-saturated generation myself (different rubrics label me either as a Millenial or as Gen-Y, though I think those terms are sometimes used interchangably), I’m not sure that this relative comfort with communications media implies specific imperatives for the classroom.  I’m not sure that this generation is so profoundly “different” that technology must be used to “reach” them.

As this post at Historiann indicates (as well as this post on Not of General Interest, which Historiann links), universities and school systems are exerting increasing pressure upon instructors to implement new media and tech in the classroom:

Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

The belief that technology has magical powers in the classroom extends to this idea that using social media makes one a sort of Millenial Whisperer, as if this generation were a different species or culture (digital “native?”) communicating in foreign ways.  There’s a strange way in which this effort at bridging a generational gap has become decidedly othering.  What makes it worse is the way in which an affinity for new media has increasingly been depicted as a dependency or pathology.  (For what I think is a truly balanced looked at internet addiction see the work of research psychologist Nick Yee, who prefers the term “problematic usage” to addiction.)   While it’s true that you can hardly turn around without seeing an alarmist article about a kid who spontaneously combusted because his parents took away his World of Warcraft account, most Millenials actually are capable of functioning without the mediation of a computing device.

Most students are, in fact, quite accustomed to traditional classrooms, given that most public schools cannot afford to equip every class with state of the art equipment.  Last fall, I was assigned a classroom that was like a portal to 1985, with a chalkboard and an overhead projector, and we all did just fine.  As a rule, I think that students appreciate an instructor who genuinely cares about their progress more than they care about whether you tried to incorporate Facebook into your course.  Be a good teacher first, then figure out how to use technology creatively and effectively, but only if it is going to a) make your life easier, or b) help you achieve some specific pedagogical goal.  And stick to tools that are comfortable to you.  If it seems like an unnecessary hassle or a poor fit to you, I guarantee it will feel that way to your students, who can smell pandering insincerity a mile away.

As for me, I’ve found that a class website, whether you manage it through Blackboard, a wiki, Facebook, or some other means, can be an invaluable tool, and next Spring, I am going to look at using WordPress blogs in order to help students think about writing for broader public rather than just writing what they think the teacher wants to read.  I am skeptical about the use of texting, because not everyone has an unlimited plan, and I suspect that being charge 10 cents to receive updates from your instructor probably isn’t much fun.  Using stuff that students can access for free in their home or in a lab is essential for me.

Technology can be incredibly useful for educators, but it is not a magical tool that will make you relevant to the generation you’re teaching.  Sincerity and genuine investment in what you’re doing, as it turns out, is pretty timeless.

Using PBworks for Paperless Classrooms: A How-to Guide

PBworks HomepageThe benefits of running a paperless classroom are many and obvious:  reduced environmental impact, lighter bags, no students running in late on the day a paper is due because the lab printer was down, etc.  While many instructors are comfortable using institutionally based software like Blackboard for this purpose, I’ve come to prefer the free wiki site called PBworks due to its simplicity, intuitive interface, and friendliness to collaboration.

PBworks runs on a wiki software, which means that each page can be edited by anyone approved by the site administrator.  This makes it ideal for group projects, peer review, sign-up sheets, and generating things like collaborative vocabulary or source lists.  While not terribly fancy, you can effectively store and organize all of your class materials on it and use it as your class home page if you so desire.  On student evaluations, students consistently cite the wiki as one of their favorite things about my class.

Getting Started: When you first visit the site, you’ll want to select “For Education” and “Sign Up Now.”  You’ll then be given three options at varying costs.  Our department has its own paid-for account, but most people will want to simply choose the free “Basic” option.  You’ll then be prompted to name your site.  Pick something like “”  Keep in mind that you can create as many unique workspaces as you want, so you can have “,” etc. in the future.  I usually elect to keep my class sites private.

A newly created wiki This is what your wiki will look like when you first create it (click to embiggen any of these screenshots).  Note the four tabs at the top left of the page and the two tabs underneath.  Each page in your wiki will have a “View” and an “Edit” tab.  Remind your students that you have to be in “Edit” to change anything.  They will inevitably forget and get frustrated.  The first thing you will probably want to do is change your front page.  I usually put my vital course and instructor info in there.  Just for reference, here is a screenshot of my latest wiki (with my personal information blacked out).

The front page of my latest course siteThere are two fields on the right that you’ll want to make note of:  The Pages and Folder list and the Sidebar.  You can edit the Sidebar like any other page just by clicking “Edit the Sidebar” at the bottom.  The edit interface features all of the standard items in a MS Word, Blogger, or WordPress interface.  You can add hypertext links, images, and video.  You can also provide links to documents that you’ve uploaded to the site.  I use my sidebar for links to important class documents like the grading policy and reading schedule.

Next, you’ll want to look at the file management system.  There are shortcuts to all of your files and folders on the right hand side of every page, but you can also look at everything on your wiki by clicking “Pages and Files” on the top left.  This interface will allow you to upload files and create folders for each of your students (or they can create the folders themselves).  Here’s a view of one student’s folder, with the folder list on the side (last names have been erased for privacy purposes).

Paperless Submissions: Students can either upload assignments as Word files or cut and paste text into the standard page fields.  Both methods offer different advantages, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  You’ll want to make sure, however, that in any case, students give their documents and pages unique names that designate their name, the assignment, and the current draft.  Files that are uploaded with duplicate names will overwrite one another, and having unique names makes it easier to find an assignment that hasn’t been put in the proper folder.  You’ll note that each page/file is also time stamped, which is handy if you are a stickler about enforcing deadlines.

Recent Activity page

If you return to the main page, you’ll notice a field called “Recent Activity” at the very bottom.  It’s a short list of the last several things that were done on the site.  If you click “More Activity,” you can see every action performed on the site in order.  This is part of what makes my oddball late policy doable.  This feature allows me to grade papers in the order in which they were received and save papers that did not meet the deadline for my next grading period. (Note:  the fact that the site rigorously tracks changes and who makes them is a bit of insurance against any shenanigans.)

Add Users pageOnce you have your site organized the way you want it, you can start inviting your students.  If you go up to the Users tab on the top left, you’ll see a button that allows you to add more users.  Simply enter the email addresses of the people you wish to add.  They will be sent a link and prompted to create a PBworks account.  Alternatively, you can send your students the link to your site and allow them to request access.

Sample Peer Review ActivityPeer Review: One of the many activities PBworks allows you to, by virtue of the fact that anyone can edit any page, is virtual peer review.  If you don’t have a computer equipped classroom, this activity can be assigned as homework.  Have each student copy and paste their paper onto a new wiki page.  Then assign two students to read each paper.  Have the peer reviewers go in and enter their comments in a different color and identify their color at the bottom of the page.  Students can also use the comment feature at the bottom to make narrative comments and write into the page itself for line edits or specific comments.  Note the image on the left (from a rhetoric class two years ago).

Paperless Grading: Using the wiki for grading purposes is tricky due to FERPA restrictions.  While the wiki is technically private, it isn’t perfectly secure, so you should never ever post grades or any sort of evaluation on the wiki.  Here is what you can do though:  have students upload their final paper submissions as a Word document.  Download them and use the Word comments feature for marginalia.  Then type up a summary comment either at the top or bottom.  Then use a secure service like Blackboard to email the document to the student.  I don’t even put a grade on it, both out of paranoia and because I think it helps the student engage with the comments rather than worrying about the grade.  I post grades on Blackboard’s gradebook, and students know they can check for it there after they receive their paper.

Sample Sign-Up SheetPaperless Sign-ups: Here’s one more nifty thing.  I have various activities (presentations, one-on-one conferences) that usually require a sign-up sheet.  Not any more.  You can just create one on a wiki page and have students go in and enter their names.

So those are the basics.  There are many, many different ways that you can use this site, especially if you have a networked classroom.  Look here and here for a few assignments that use the wiki for collaborative assignments.

eBook Readers for Scholars: Thoughts on the Nook

Barnes and Noble NookI received a Barnes & Noble Nook for my birthday this year (thanks Mom!) and have been playing around with it for a while with an eye toward reviewing it for this blog.  I don’t plan to make a habit of reviewing products here, but I am something of a gadget nerd and am interested in the ways that technology can enhance both teaching and research.

While tablet computers are probably going to represent the future of portable computing (thanks to the success of the iPad and the promise of Android and Microsoft-based tablets in the coming year), with the introduction of the B&N Nook for $149 (Wi-Fi only) and $199 (Wi-Fi + 3G) and the Kindle 3 (starting at $139), eBook readers now represent a much more affordable alternative for those who want a decent niche device.  And while the potential hasn’t been fully exploited, there’s value here for academics interested in paperless (and highly portable) research.

Let’s start with the obvious:  this thing weighs less than your average trade paperback and fits easily in a laptop bag or a purse.  I usually carry a small library with me when I travel, because being trapped on a plane or in a car without reading material is, for me, a fate worse than dental surgery.  However, I also tend to carry a lot of books with me when I go into campus.  I take whatever I need for class, plus the top 2-3 books that I will need for writing purposes on that particular day.  I frequently get bruises on my shoulders from the straps of my very, very heavy bag.  The thrill of carrying the collected works of Theodore Dreiser, writer of enormous 600 page novels, in a device weighing approximately 10 ounces, was something of a thrill this past week.

Also handy is the ability to browse and download books on demand with the (free) 3G connection.  While waiting for my bus, I was downloading (free) public domain copies of some of Twain’s more obscure works.  The matte e-ink display is crisp and easy to read, very similar to paper, in fact.  I can read outdoors in full sunlight without getting distracted by my own reflection and how bad my hair looks in the crazy heat and humidity we’re experiencing.

More substantively, the major advantage that Nook has over Kindle (and iBook) is its support of the .epub and .pdf format, which is becoming the industry standard for eBooks.  Basically, it means that you aren’t limited to the books that you can purchase through Barnes & Noble the way you are limited to Amazon through the Kindle.   The Nook can display any text that you download off of Google Books (and the search feature automatically searches Google Books and downloads them free of charge.)  Google Books has been a resource of indescribable value to me during my dissertation research, given that it houses an astounding collection of nineteenth century periodicals and early editions.  Thanks to the .pdf support, I was able to put all of the books I had previously downloaded onto my Nook.  I was also able to transfer JSTOR and Project Muse articles, though the conversion software for those documents leaves something to be desired and tends to introduce errors.  Let’s hope they get a software update for that right quick.

Also awesome is the fact that unlike iTunes, all of your eBook purchases are backed up online in case the device gets lost or breaks.  Even cooler is the fact that there are free Nook apps available for your PC, smart phone, or iPad.  So, instead of using Apple’s annoyingly proprietary iBooks app, you can access your Nook library on any device.  It even remembers what book you’re currently reading and where you are in it.

The .epub file format is also supported by many lending libraries.  Local libraries throughout the country are offering downloadable (time-limited) eBooks in .epub and .pdf format.  So, as I recently discovered, does the eBook distributor that my university library subscribes to, though said library does not have the “download for offline reading” option switched on (annoying).  What this means, however, is that there is enormous potential for research libraries to support .epub and .pdf compatible eBook readers.  One of my few complaints about Nook is the limited selection of scholarly titles, whereas subscriber services like EBL seem to have quite excellent selections.  Making lendable eBooks available on readers rather than just on personal computers would be pretty huge boon to both scholars and students and would solve the issue of whatever book I need at a given moment always being checked out to someone else, who probably has it on their bottom shelf and just keeps renewing it because they might need it again even though they’re not using it now, and then I have to recall the book, which takes two weeks, and….(natters on incoherently).

Other drawbacks:

  • The highlight and notes feature is a little clunky (and the touchscreen keyboard rather teeny), though with practice, I think I could get used to it.  I usually take notes and transcribe passages into a Word doc though, because it makes drafting easier for me.
  • The web browser is slow and difficult to navigate, but the fact that it has one at all is sort of a bonus.
  • As I said before, they need a better image to text conversion software for PDFs.

Other neat stuff:

  • eBooks turn out to be cheaper than real books (new titles $9.99-$14.99), though the up-front investment in the device is still substantial.
  • You can mark several pages within a book and then browse the pages you marked later on.  This is exactly like my sort of non-method of dog-earing the bottom corner of pages I want to return to later.
  • There is also a feature that allows you to search for a word or phrase in any book (helpful for finding quotes when I forget to write the page number down or need to convert citations from one edition to another).
  • Wi-Fi connectivity is instant and download speeds are shockingly fast.
  • The ability to read books for free in the store and download free samples elsewhere is also nice.
  • All in all, the developers seem to have thought deeply about how people actually interact with books in the real world.  It’s nice to be understood.

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