Getting the most out of PDFs

I wanted to pass along two great resources for helping you get the most out of PDFs. (This is a topic near and dear to my heart: I’m a bit of a PDF hoarder. Between work-related items, research articles, and knitting patterns, my computer desktop always has a healthy number of PDFs on it!)

1) Twelve Powerful PDF Tools. This article lists some helpful PDF resources.

I’m especially intrigued by PageFlipFlap, which turns PDFs into flippable book pages. You simply upload your PDF and then wait for an email with a link to your content. You can view the flip book on your computer, share the output to social media, or embed it on your website using the code provided. The service is free – and seemingly without limit to the number of documents or pages in your document (as long as you are wiling to tolerate some advertising). One other thing to note: PageFlipFlap uses flash. Sorry, iDevice users.

I’ve used BlogBooker in the past, and can attest to the fidelity of the PDF provided. This is a great way to archive a class blog. I love that it captures images and comments. Best, the PDFs it generates are purely your blog’s content without advertising or information about BlogBooker itself. To use this, you need to be the administrator of the blog in question, since BlogBooker generates the PDF file from the export file provided to blog admins by most blogging platforms.

Check out the rest of the PDF options!

2.  Annotating PDFs. It’s really helpful to be able to highlight or add commentary and notes to PDFs (see our earlier review of Highlighter for a social / course-based component to PDF annotations).

Looking through my own notes, I ran across a Profhacker article recommending the app PDFpen. It might be as amazing as the author contends – in particular, the OCR feature to convert items into searchable text does seem really useful for some researchers – but I’m cheap. Thus, unless I’m really going to use all the features, the $14.99 iPad / $60.00 Mac price tag is a bit steep.

My old standby, iAnnotate, is only $2.99 and works well with the iPad. For those looking to economize even more, Skim is free PDF annotation software for Mac computers.

I’m always on the hunt for new tools – what do you use to annotate PDFs? Moreover, what neat and new things are you doing with PDFs? Share away in the comments!

iPad Presentation Apps

How timely! We’re in the process of re-working the Tablet and Smartphone, Collaboration, Presentation, and Web 2.0 areas of our website. I’m thus particularly delighted that a colleague shared this lovely collection of resources from edshelf with me: 27 Presentation & Creation iPad Apps.

Here’s a snapshot of the various apps the site highlights (click on the image below to see the tools in their full glory over at edshelf):

Best, the site has a short introductory video for each app, plus user comments. Talk about simplifying the app research process: you and your students will be sharing content in no time!

Project-Based Learning

Well-designed projects put the students in charge of finding new information, processing this data in accordance with what they already know, and then sharing their newly acquired insights. These are, obviously, skills that will serve students well as they journey into the world. Moreover, this process also invites students to actively engage with course content in order to construct meaning from their research efforts. Years later, most students will remember the ways they applied course content far more than they’ll remember content covered on tests or written about in papers.

From a faculty perspective, transmitting course content in the form of a lecture or a reading is sometimes easier than helping students wrestle with information they’ve found on their own. Indeed, projects can be more work for both students and faculty. Yet, this sort of in-the-trenches learning provides an opportunity to really see the ways in which students are deeply engaging with course content, solving problems, and applying course concepts. A broken clock is right twice a day: students can guess or deduce the right answers to test questions. Student projects, on the other hand, provide a variety of opportunities that allow the instructor to assess student learning with greater confidence.

Here’s a short video about project-based learning. (The content is a great introduction to project-based learning; the faceless people are a little creepy, but, hey, so it goes, right?)

Perhaps you’re now thinking about incorporating project-based learning in your next course? Or maybe you already use projects, but you’re looking to tweak them a little? Time for some resources! While the exact tools you suggest (or require) students use will be a function of your course content and project parameters, the links below might help you think through building in opportunities for students to act as meaning-makers and knowledge mediators via course projects.

Ten Reasons to try 20% Time in the Classroom. The premise here is that you give over 20% of class time for students to focus on self-directed projects. If you’re on the fence about incorporating a major project into your course, these reasons might be worth considering.

The Eight Elements Project-based Learning Must Have. I’m no fan of firm of numbers (nor of the word “must”), but this article does have a handy checklist / simple rubric that is a great starting point for guidelines and rubrics you might give your students.

11 Essential Tools for Better Project-based Learning. Some of these tools we’ve discussed before, some are new to the blog; some have a cost, and some have lite or educational options that make them free or more affordable. Tools range from mind-mapping and visual thinking tools (Mindmeister and Glogster) that might be helpful in the early stages of the project to digital story-telling and presentation options (Animoto and Audioboo) and  that can help convey final results.

Project Ideas. This extensive list of potential project ideas comes from the Kaneb Center at Notre Dame. Note that this a list of ways students can convey their findings, rather than individual topics themselves.

Developing Alternate Research Assignments with Students and Faculty. This link is actually a short case summary of alternate research assignments in two music courses. In particular, I like the perspective offered here by the inclusion of the subject librarian.

Do you have a successful project that you assign? What makes it work so well? Alternately, if projects haven’t been your thing or haven’t quite clicked for your courses, tell us about that, too.

Data Visualization Tools

As a follow-up to my earlier post about templates for student research posters, I wanted to share a list of the top 20 data visualization tools, according to informatician Brian Suda.

Data visualization tools nicely bridge the gap between data analysis and the communication of results: sometimes they can help you and your student researchers discover new findings, and sometimes they can help the larger audience really grasp the significance of the work that has been done. A win either way, right?

Best, the list above includes a diverse set of tools. Tools listed range from the very basic and very user-friendly to more complex and code-driven options. Online and offline options are provided. The list also reflects the fact that data output takes many forms, offering tools for making graphs, charts, maps, as well as infographics and interactive data visualizations.

(Many thanks to Kim Mann and the Academic Technology blog at the College of William & Mary for drawing my attention to this resource!)

Templates for Student Research Posters

Whenever I see student research posters, I’m always amazed at the wonderful work our students do: these posters are really detailed and complex.

Throughout my education, the emphasis was largely on the components of good research questions and the varieties of data collection, manipulation, and analysis. Figuring out how to communicate my results was a secondary topic, if it was addressed at all.

And yet, presenting data is a very different skill from analyzing data.

Enter Colin Purrington and his downloadable templates for conference posters. Purrington, a former biology professor at Swarthmore College, provides some truly elegant poster templates. The page is long, but it’s useful, well-written, and quite clever. He also offers a wealth of design advice, including tips on layout, logos, typesetting, color choice, and other things which – when done correctly – can make a poster sing. There’s even an example of what not to do, and several suggestions about how to solicit feedback on your poster.

In helping your students put together their posters, you can share posters you’ve made, posters from conferences you’ve attended, as well as other online examples. But there’s nothing like a well-designed template (or five!) to help students clearly present their findings and teach them the very specific academic skill of poster creation. Successful poster design really is part of acculturation into the academy, requiring that students not only master the skills of summarizing their research and making wise design choices, but also gain an awareness of disciplinary norms and presentation styles.

Although Purrington’s examples and templates favor conference posters for the hard sciences, it would be easy enough to adapt the templates for many social science research presentations.

There’s no need to re-invent the (conference poster) wheel. Note, however, that you must cite the developer of the wheel in some instances. You may use Purrington’s templates without acknowledgement; but should you use text directly from his page, you’ll need to do the right thing. On that note, I originally found out about Colin Purrington via a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Percolator blog.

Free Group Video Calling on Skype

Last month, Skype announced a great deal for educational users: free group video calling for a year.

The freebie is associated with Skype’s educational arm, Skype in the classroom. Skype in the classroom skews more to a K-12 audience, but there’s nothing to stop you from joining the Skype in the classroom site and then using those features (such as the group video calling) that work for you. After all, group video calling is an excellent way to chat with far-flung collaborators about research, check-in with  groups of students working together off-campus, or invite a remote panel of experts and practitioners into your classroom.

Previously, users had to pay for group video calling as part of Skype Premium; Now, instructors can video chat with up to nine other users at a time (although quality may decline with more than five users on the call). Directions and screenshots on the Skype blog explain how to get started.

A word to the wise: The process requires you to create a Skype in the classroom account (you’ll need to enter your email address), but you should also take the opportunity to check that the email addresses associated with your primary Skype account are correct and current. This is crucial since once Skype verifies you as an educational user, they’ll send an email with a voucher code for the free group video calling and other Skype premium services.

Once you’re all ready to go – or while your educational user verification is pending – you might want to review our past post all about Skype resources.


I’m a huge fan of the photo sharing site Flickr, especially since they finally got it together and released some Flickr apps for smartphones and a Flickr app for the iPad. However, I understood Flickr to be primarily place where you uploaded all 2,347 pictures of your new baby (ahem). But recently I’ve run across a few other blog posts detailing the scholarly side of Flickr. Who knew?!

The Academic Technology blog at the College of William and Mary has a great post discussing the options for sharing your research-related images. How do you share a gallery of annotated images with select individuals without the need for additional accounts on the part of the viewers? A Flickr album!

Note that the above presumes you have – and have the rights to use – the images. If you’d like to use properly licensed Flickr images, there’s a lovely how-to from Derek Bruff, the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the department of mathematics there. ProfHacker has also recently outlined how to use Flickr to make better slides.

If you’re not finding the images you need through Flickr, you can always try Google: we’ve written about finding properly licensed images using Google image search.

And, in case you feel like going image-crazy, here is a past post of ours about the ways in which you might find, edit, and use digital images.