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Month: March 2010

Web Apps to Watch

Web Apps to Watch

Here’s a short list of my current favourite and frequently-used web apps.

My current darling, Prezi, is probably best understood as a slick replacement for powerpoint, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a cross between a mind-mapping tool, presentation software, an interactive flash embed for a website, and a great way to present a whole mash of youtube videos in one simple document. Rather than flipping slides, you zoom from one element of the presentation canvas to the next. Perhaps what I like best about Prezi is the way it makes use of depth as well as height and width; your content can hide in small text, visible to the audience only when it’s turn comes along the path. Working in Prezi makes the web feel like infinite space rather than a simple text box or just the space within a monitor. I’ve taken to not only presenting with Prezi, but also creating presentations to add to our website and throwing ideas out onto a canvas to construct ideas and make plans (even when I have no intention of presenting it).

Prezi has an educational license, making it freely available to those of us in higher ed.


I feel like I’ve been looking for this web app for most of my life. Crocodoc lets you upload a pdf and mark it up. It has a nice set of tools; sticky notes, drawing tools, highlighters, text. You can share the URL and let others mark up the pdf with you, or download the marked up version and have a permanent, printable copy of your commentary. Simple, incredibly useful. Crocodoc has actually been an answer to reference questions at our library. Can you mark up a pdf document without paying for Adobe? Yes, you can.

Screenjelly and Screentoaster

In general, I’m not a big fan of the screencast. It focuses our attention on how-tos and distracts us from the deeper issues of any tool. However, there are times when it’s a heck of a lot easier to demonstrate how to accomplish a task with software rather than trying desperately to paint a picture with words. And if you’re going to do it, do it fast. Screenjelly has pushed me in my “quick and dirty” thinking; if you’re going to do video (which surely dates itself instantly), make it disposable. Don’t spend hours on it! Do it, post it, move on. Let it fulfill its purpose right this moment, and don’t expect it to be perfect. I like this attitude and this embrace of the ephemeral. And thus, Screenjelly is my friend. Screenjelly records what’s on your screen (and optionally records whatever you have to say about it) for a maximum of three minutes. Then it gives you the option to embed the video, just like a youtube video. In fullscreen mode, your video is sharp, crisp, and actually looks as if it’s your own computer, not a video recording. Screenjelly is surely the quickest way to show someone how to do that one little thing they’re struggling to do. Custom videos, made on demand! That’s music to my ears.

If you need something a little fancier than what Screenjelly can do for you, you can try Screentoaster. Screentoaster doesn’t have a time limit, it lets you choose a segment of your screen to record, and it will record and superimpose live video from your webcam into the bottom right of the video. So not only can your audience hear you explaining how to do something on a website, they can see you while you tell them!

These services are just amazing. And free! Outrageous!

Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

I’m on the record of not being particularly in favour of using Twitter as a form of online reference, but that’s not to say that I’m not interested in seeing how students use Twitter. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite doing it, but I follow a Twitter search of people mentioning my place of work. I do this mostly out of curiosity, but I find that I can’t see us mentioned and not respond, or answer a question, or assure someone that I’ll pass on their complaint to the right person. I don’t consider it reference, and I do it on my own time, and I don’t think it’s something particularly sustainable or broad-spectrum, but it’s interesting nevertheless. I think of it as more of a zeitgeist, and a means of reminding myself why I do what I do. I let Twitter remind me about what’s important, and where my efforts should be directed. It’s humbling and grounding in that way.

So as I’ve been monitoring this one singular little Twitter search (mentions of my place of work), I’ve noticed some interesting trends. I’m starting to consider the possibility of being able to form an answer to the question “what do students use Twitter for?” Of course, these preliminary answers are biased, since they must contain a location in the tweet. But even so.

What I’ve seen so far falls into two broad categories: complaints, and shout outs. The complaints are things I expect; students who can’t find a place to sit, grumbling about wireless problems, outlets not working, complaints about workload, etc. I’ve seen exactly one tweet from a lecture, but I suspect there are more that I’m just not finding with my search term. In short: students appear to use Twitter as a way to vent about things when they’re stressed out. Since I find myself doing the same thing more often than I’d like, this doesn’t surprise me. It’s this behaviour that I think makes it worth my while to keep an eye on it. I saw a marked uptick in complaints once the exam period began last term. Twitter complaints may have more to do with the stress level of the student body than with specific issues, but it’s a nice reminder to be extra sympathetic at those times.

The shout outs: these are sort of fun. More often than not, the stuff that comes up on my search fits into this category. Students use Twitter to tell their friends where they are; it’s the foursquare use, even without the use of foursquare! They announce which part of the library they’re in, who they’re with, and what they’re working on. They shout out how many words they’ve written in their essays. This is really cool, and it would be neat to incorporate this kind of presence awareness status update with the course itself. It could certainly help students find classmates to study with. It could fit into some kind of meta courseware, nebulous social layer to the university.

At this point, I don’t think there are very many students at my campus using Twitter. I’m not sure there will ever be very many of them. But it provides an interesting view of student life.