Cool Tools (On the TCU Campus)

If you’re here at TCU, I recommend checking out the monthly brown bag sessions offered by the TCU New Media Writing Studio on free digital tools. I attended the first one of these last week; you can find upcoming dates listed on the New Media Writing Studio workshop schedule.

In the hour-long session, three presenters shared how they each use a different tool to improve their teaching and research. Discussion was informal, with plenty of time for questions, clarification, and examples.

The tools covered were: A simple, quick screen-sharing tool. The individual sharing his/her screen downloads some basic free software, while viewers need only navigate to the webpage and enter a designated nine-digit code to see the shared screen. Clearly useful when viewers are not in the same physical location, this tool also has broad applicability for face-to-face classes. For example, the instructor or student presenter can bypass plugging a personal machine or thumb drive into the projector by navigating to on the classroom computer’s web browser, entering the code, and then projecting the shared screen – progression through the presentation or other content is actually controlled from a personal laptop or tablet elsewhere in the classroom. The ability to manipulate content on the classroom projector while not standing at the podium allows for greater flexibility regarding how classroom space can be used: students and the instructor can sit together in a circle or around a seminar table. Likewise, students who bring their own devices to class can enter the designated screen sharing code and then view the speaker’s content on their own screens – no need to face the front of the classroom at all! Last, screen sharing, instead of directly attempting to load files on the classroom computer, can also help to avoid version or software compatibility issues that might arise from attempting to open content created on a different machine.

Diigo: A link aggregating and organizing tool, complete with sharing and social networking features.  In order to use Diigo, you place a small toolbar on your browser, and then save and tag websites that catch your eye. You also have the ability to share your links with groups you create or preexisting Diigo groups you can join. Likewise, you can see other links saved by individuals who also saved your initial link, allowing you to perhaps discover relevant, related content. The ability to search your links by tag (or keyword) is what makes Diigo so versatile; a saved bookmark can generally exist in only one folder, but a given Diigo link can have multiple tags. You can then search your all your links for a specific tag or search all user-saved Diigo links for a specific tag. Additionally, since your Diigo bookmarks live in the cloud, they are available to you no matter your location or device. Basic Diigo membership is free and comes with unlimited bookmarking and some advertising; upgraded plans with no advertising and increased highlighting, note-taking, and searching powers cost $20-$40 per year (note that there are also educator upgrades available).

PBworks: We’ve written about wikis on this blog already, but a good tool bears repeating! PbWorks is a wiki hosting service that allows you to create a free, basic wiki for educational / non-commercial use. Wikis are great tools for organizing your teaching and professional materials. Instead of collecting items in folders or sub-folders by class or year, you can put up a wiki page with your notes or upload and link to relevant files. A wiki organized topically like this means that if you cover the same topic in multiple courses over a period of years, there’s no need to go hunting for content – it’s all linked together, based on relationships you establish among the files and wiki pages. Likewise, as you gather materials for research or professional projects of your own, a wiki can help you store and organize files, web links, and your own typed notes. While the wiki grows over time, you never need to worry about losing your notes or files, as these are no longer stored on your local machine; you can access your files from home, work, or using your mobile / tablet device. Complete with tagging features, the ability to search the contents of the entire wiki, and privacy controls (including allowing comments and sharing editing rights), wikis have some real advantages over simply storing files or taking notes on your local machine.

If cool tools like this have piqued your interest, you might be interested in the multimedia and teaching tools collected by the Koehler Center team. We’ve broken these tools down into audio, video, collaboration, digital storytelling, graphics, presentations and slidecasts, social networking, mobile and tablet apps, and an exciting grab bag of other web 2.0 tools (maps, calculators, study aids, etc.) that defy neat classification. You’re sure to find something interesting!

Wiki round-up

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about collaboration – partially, this has been spurred by my new love for pinterest (watch for a post on that coming soon!).

But today, I thought I’d talk about wikis. In particular, with midterm season fast approaching, I’m toying with the idea that wikis – if used properly – could be an awesome tool for class-wide, student-led exam review. I like the idea of the students themselves building an evolving knowledge base (with variable levels of involvement from the instructor).

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. A wiki is:

A web site that lets any visitor become a participant:  you can create or edit the actual site contents without any special technical knowledge or tools. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection. A wiki is continuously “under revision.” It is a living collaboration whose purpose is the sharing of the creative process and product by many. One famous example is Wiki-pedia, an online encyclopedia with no “authors” but millions of contributors and editors. The word “wiki” comes from Hawaiian language, meaning “quick” or “fast.”

The shining example- love it of hate it – is, of course, Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s detractors cite the open-acess format and the ability of anonymous “non-experts” to write seemingly authoritative and potentially inaccurate entries. However, if you are using a wiki within the format of your course, you can easily limit access (both setting limits about who can see the wiki and who can write entries; I know that Wikispaces, for example, allows one to set viewing and authoring to members-only) and assign identifiable usernames.

Why wikis? Above, I mentioned exam review and building a knowledge base, but we also want to think about the skills students are using when they interact with course content in the wiki format. The big appeal of a wiki is its collaborative nature and the ability to engage in such collaborative behavior across time and space. Thus, I’m thinking that wikis really might be a great fit for distance learning / online courses and courses in which it is especially challenging for students to get together outside of class (for example, professional practicum students). In these scenarios, a wiki might solve some real collaboration problems and build some community.

Likewise, a wiki could be especially beneficial if one of your goals as an instructor is to have the students create an authentic and reflective artifact together. There are some significant benefits to collaborative learning that we, as educators, might want to harness. In particular, these are my favorites:

  • A team approach to problem solving while maintaining individual accountability.
  • Students are taught how to criticize ideas, not people.

Hmmm. Maybe the whole world needs a wiki? More concretely, I also feel like this is pretty adaptable across the disciplines / topics within a given course.

So how might a professor get started? Here are some concrete tips (adapted from seven thirty-five a.m.):

1. Physically, on paper, sketch out the structure of your wiki (whether it’s a drawing, word web type graphic organizer, an outline, etc.).  Once you conceptually see this on paper it may be easier to assemble and organize it. Note that you, as the instructor, will need to build and maintain the “skeleton” and rely on the students to add the “muscles”.  Definitely review the STOLEN principle wiki page on optimal wiki design!

2. Put some content or samples on the wiki so that your students have a guide as to what they may be doing. Students may not have experience with writing wiki entries. Show them what success looks like! But, stress to the students that your example is just that — an example. Do point out the essential features of your example that they must include in their work.

3. Before students log on or create accounts:

  • Set ground rules. A good rule of thumb is to tell students that the rules they follow on campus and the rules for other university-affiliated computer use and behavior must also be followed on the wiki.
  • Set guidelines for user names, if you are using a wiki tool that requires students to create user accounts. You will want to establish a convention that allows the students to be identifiable to you and to each other, but that does not reveal too much personal information.

Beyond exam review, here are some other ideas for using wikis in your class:

WebQuest: Every group will be responsible for locating websites related to their topic, and then annotate, rank, and organize them using the wiki. By the end of the course, the students will have different wiki pages (one per topic) with a list of valuable references that they can use in the future.

Community notes:For courses in which students are required to attend performances or lectures outside of class, students can write up their reflections on the wiki, highlighting important points from readings and class discussions and making this connection clear for all students. Encourage / require other students to comment on the notes.

Group Portfolio: This option will likely vary, depending on your discipline and goals.

Project Management: Perhaps the major goal of your course is to produce something – a TV commercial, a play, a vaccine clinic, a campus awareness day, etc. – you might use the wiki to allow students to communicate about different facets of the project.

If you are just building your own familiarity with wikis, you may opt to offer this to your students as a supplementary tool with no academic credit attached, to grade simply based on participation or not using a credit / no credit approach, or you may wish to provide more detailed feedback. If you are wanting to take the plunge with providing detailed, specific feedback, here’s a base rubric you could use (to which you could add your own content-specific or course-specific goals).