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!

Easy Scheduling with Doodle

We’ve reached the point in the semester where it’s time for review sessions, discussions of in-progress projects, and other small-group meetings with students. Suddenly, office hours are getting a lot busier!

Perhaps you’re considering adding extra office hours. But which times? And how will you know that students really intend to come and see you?

Introducing Doodle, an easy, free, online scheduling tool. Best, no account set-up is required for the organizer or the attendees. An organizer simply enters the days and times available for meetings. Additional settings allow for if-need-be dates, confidential replies, limiting the number of time-slot selections attendees can make, and limiting the number of attendees per time slot.

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Schedule availability is then published on the web as an interactive form.

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You can send the link to the Doodle through your own email, or create an account and enter the email addresses of potential attendees to have Doodle send the link automatically. As an aside, if you do create a free account, Doodle will sync with calendars on Outlook, Yahoo, Google, and iCal.

As the organizer, you have a separate link that permits you to edit the Doodle.

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Free accounts have advertising, but the ads are pretty unobtrusive. The premium account allows you to collect email addresses and phone numbers of potential attendees, send reminders, sync with iCloud, and use themed designs.

Of course, there are always those students whose schedules render them unable to attend your office hours. With Doodle, you’ll be able to see that – thanks to the “Cannot make it” button – so you can reach out to those students individually.

Students working on group projects or forming study groups can also use Doodle for their own scheduling purposes. This is a great tool to share with them as you introduce resources to help them with their group projects.

Likewise, Doodle can help you coordinate faculty schedules, making it easy to schedule committee meetings or even meals and meetings on the sidelines of professional conferences.

(h/t NorthStarNerd)

Summertime and the livin’ is . . .

Summertime and the livin’ is . . . research-intensive? Teaching-intensive? If your summer looks like one of those options, this is a little round-up of tools and tips that might make your life easier.

If you’re traveling internationally for research or as part of a teaching program, ProfHacker has some tips for you about technology while living abroad.

When summer teaching or research involves long travel times, you might appreciate this list of 10 sites to download free audio books. If ebooks are your thing, here’s some open-source software to help you get the ebook you want on the device you have. Alternately, you can check out One Hundred Free Books, a constantly changing list of, yes, one hundred free Kindle books. And here’s a comprehensive list of free courses, audio books, ebooks, and textbooks.

For those working in archives where photography is allowed, the CamScanner app (with free upgrade for educational users) easily converts photos taken with your smartphone into PDFs.

And for those teaching, this is a nice list of first day activities that create a climate for learning. With the shortened summer terms, it’s tempting to plunge right in and start grappling with course content. However, since you’ll also be fighting the inevitable summer distractions, it’s useful to get your students thinking about their role in the learning process.

Just for fun, if you want to know how others are spending the summer, here’s a cool infographic Google created based on world-wide search queries from last summer. Libraries are rather under-represented, sadly.

And, because you might be thinking of it now, here’s some summertime music for you:

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!)

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.

How to Find the Right Digital Tool

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a . . . well, you’ve heard that one, and it doesn’t end well when you’re using a computer or a tablet!

For those moments when you start to wonder if there’s an easier or better digital tool out there for your needs, check out Bamboo DiRT. Bamboo DiRT is a website listing digital resources that help you organize, analyze, search, and share digital content. The site has a scholarly research focus and is curated by a board of volunteer editors. Although it has a humanities focus, the site is actively seeking input for new tools from diverse disciplines.

Especially useful for teaching and scholarship, Bamboo DiRT’s function-based organization makes it easy to quickly find an the tool that you or your students might use for a particular phase of a project. Best, as a curated listing, the tools provided are ones actually in use by other scholars; there’s no need to ask others what tools they use, track down reviews of a potential tool on multiple sites, or lose time as a result of choosing an outdated or weak tool.

The main page of the Bamboo DiRT site invites users to complete the sentence “I need a digital research tool to . . .” with options like “Author an interactive  work,” “Collect Data,” “Transcribe handwritten or spoken texts,” or “Visualize Data,” for example. Clicking on your need takes you to a page with a short summary of each tool (reviews are forthcoming, according to the site). The tool listing is sortable by device/platform type, cost, and external reviews. Once you’ve selected your optimal tool, you click through to access or purchase it.

Backing up your Data

Whenever I think of losing electronic data, I’m always reminded of this story about a graduate student who had her purse – containing a thumb drive with the only copy of her thesis data – stolen. The miraculous part of this story is that the determined and desperate grad student retraces the thief’s steps based on charges made to her credit cards, goes dumpster diving, and finds the purse with the thumb drive still in it. 

I love a cosmic good luck story. Luck and dumpster diving are, however, horrible data back-up strategies. At this point in the semester, the work you’ve done (lectures, handouts, simulation directions, exam questions, essay prompts etc.) is starting to accumulate. Equally important, your students are starting to accumulate grades. It’s never too early to back all this up. I’m also of the school that there are never too many different secure places to have your data backed up. If you are TCU faculty and have your gradebook in LearningStudio, here is some documentation from the Koehler Center on exporting your LearningStudio gradebook. This is a wise thing to do before making any changes to your gradebook or to assignments that are linked to the gradebook, after entering grades, and at set intervals throughout the semester.

Where would you put your back-ups? For TCU student data, such as grades, keeping things within the TCU network is the safest option. You can use local space on your personal TCU computer and TCU network file space (the M: drive).

Items related to your own teaching and research are, of course, welcome on the M: drive as well. Note that network space there is limited – although you can request a quota increase if needed. We’ve also written about various data back-up solutions before, including Dropbox (note that this a stand-alone product, not to be confused with the electronic assignment submission tool of the same name that is found within LearningStudio course shells). This is a nice, short piece about Dropbox in educational contexts, and here are five specific ways you can use Dropbox.

I wanted to draw your attention to Dropbox in the context of this post on data back-up because Dropbox is currently giving away an extra 3GB of free storage for two years to anyone with a .edu address. There’s also a school-based incentive program in which the more people from your school that sign up and review the Get Started Guide, the more space all Dropbox users at your school earn. Here are the specific terms of that deal. Whether or not you’re interested in those incentives, the 3GB is there for the taking, even for existing Dropbox users. Here is the sign-up page.