Thursday, November 8, 2007

Free and Inexpensive Tools for Online Learning in Nashville

Hi, Jim Patterson back at ya. This time I am in Nashville for the League for Innovation in the Community College's Conference on Information Technology.

I'm speaking on free and inexpensive tools for online learning. As many of you know, in addition to teaching Business and Information Technology at
Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, I am also the online learning coordinator. I've always had a fascination in the lower cost to free tools that are out there. Plus, none of our budgets support buying all the equipment we need. And, I like choices! Sometimes a free version is exactly what I need to do what I want.

You can enhance an online course with many free or nearly free programs. You can start with some of the links I'm going to put in here or you can Google it! That reminds me, if your college wants to get out of the email business I'd suggest looking at what either
Google or Microsoft is offering for free. I'm sure other companies will jump on offering free applications and email to colleges, too.

An early consideration on whether to use a tool or not is is it complicated? Can you get trained? Also, why are you using the tool? It should be to enhance and further education, not just to provide some gee whiz.

You can work with
Adobe tools like Captivate, Breeze, and Authorware. They cost, but your college may have a discount. I have an example of something I did in Breeze.

Another commercial product for online instruction is Toolbook. There is the cheaper Assistant version or the full blown Instructor. It will produce interesting and engaging content for cd/dvd, Flash, or the Web. And there are trial downloads available at SumTotalSystems.

What is an LMS? That stands for Learning Management System. Many of you teach online classes and may use
BlackBoard, WebCT, eCollege, Desire2Learn, Sakai, or Moodle, for example. The last two are free. I just did an evaluation for Quality Matters for a course from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and they use Desire2Learn. But did you know you can go on the cheap and use Yahoo? Yahoo for instant messaging (can you say virtual office hours??) and Yahoo Groups for discussions. Google also offers a similar service called Google Talk.

You want to do Flash but can't afford or have the time to fool with Adobe Flash? Try
SWISH instead. They have a deep, very deep, educational discount. You can buy it at that discount from lots of educational discounted software companies. One I use a lot is Academic Superstore. Another is Journey Ed.

Camtasia. I love these guys. You can record desktop demonstrations with narration and video easily. You can publish to flash, cd/dvd, and streaming video. Check out the examples and the trial software by going to the
TechSmith site.

Wink is a freeware alternative to Camtasia.

Blogging... just like I'm doing. Why do it? IT IS EASY. You can be a "journalist" in seconds and publish your stuff to the Web. If you have the
Google Toolbar installed with your browser, you can see Blogger is the free blog of choice. Blogging is so easy you can use it for student assignments. They often get a kick out of seeing how easy they can post to the web. Then again, I bet many of them know that already.

Everybody is doing podcasts these days it seems. There are many commercial editing programs out there but
Audacity is free. PVCC's Mike Ho and Student Life do a lot of podcasts and Mike tells me they get THOUSANDS of hits on that page. Give a listen to some of the 'casts.

Now this next program is going to be addictive. It is called
Hot Potatoes. It is freeeee! You can produce mix and match, fill in the blank, even interesting crossword puzzle quizzes. You can output to an html file or package into a zip for import into BlackBoard, for instance. It doesn't really record the grades for you but it makes fine review-type fun quizzes.

Everybody has a digital camera. Some use their cell phones. Others, like me, have gone wild and have spent a lot of money on equipment. Photos are fun and easy and a great way to build rapport. I use
Photoshop Elements. You can download a trial and then purchase the real product for well under $100. Take a look at my photography page. Then click on the portfolio link on the left side. That was made with Photoshop Elements. Not bad, eh? Now, how about a pretty darn neat photo editing program that is free? Try Picasa. It will also build nice galleries for you. I have both Photoshop Elements and Picasa on my home and work machines. Some additional photography sites that have gallery building and limited editing would include Shutterfly, Kodak Gallery, and Flickr. Click on the link to see my personal Flickr gallery. And the 2007 CIT has a Flickr site of pictures and comments... give it a gander. Oh, before I forget, Kodak has a neat Digital Learning Center if you want project ideas and learn how to get more out of your digital camera.

All of us use PowerPoint slides. Publishers give them to us and we create our own. But posting the PPT file takes time and space.
Impatica is a program that can scrunch a PowerPoint file down by up to 95 percent. I had a nice PowerPoint slideshow on how to give a great presentation on my web site. Nice idea until I found out my students were printing page after page of the slideshow in the computer lab! So I used Impatica to produce this slideshow. Impatica is not free so check to see if your college has a site license.

You can incorporate simple video into your class without breaking the bank. Many of the newer video cameras have USB connection, so that makes it easy to import video into your computer. And I bet you might have had some free or trial video editing software bundled with it. If not, I'd suggest
Adobe Premier Elements, the partner program for Photoshop Elements. Or, how about the free Microsoft Movie Maker? For simple videos, I use my Logitech QuickCam Ultra Vision which records video in near darkness. There is a free program that will output very small videos that play with Real Player. It is called Real Producer. You can stream the video or make a nice small video from the original and post to your website or LMS, for instance. Here is another addictive toy you are going to love. Go visit Flixn now and get started with simple videos. It will record up to five minutes, then you can post the URL anywhere for viewing. Click here to see my sample Flixn video for you. And my TechSmith friends have a free thingie out there similar to Flixn called Jing. And of course, you can house your videos on YouTube. Look at what a couple of fool college professors did from PVCC! Well, one of em is a fool. You guess which one. haha.

And there is the whole open source movement. Again, get your Google site up and ready to do some searching. One nice suite of programs similar to MS Office is
Open Office. In the Spring of 2008 PVCC will be hosting a "Dialogue Day" on open source products for education. Visit the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction or MCLI for more information.

Let me know if this has been helpful... I'm at at work or you can visit me at my faculty webpage.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Going from XP to Vista - Lessons Learned (May 29, 2007)

A few days ago I made the plunge and decided to install Microsoft Vista on my laptop and home computer. Many of you know I am a faculty at Paradise Valley Community College and teach Microsoft products, so I have a professional need to be playing and learning this operating system.

My bottom line upfront advice is unless you love pretty colors and 3-D hootsaws, there is no need to rush into Vista. If XP is working fine, you are good for awhile. Microsoft will not support XP for very long, but at least you know there is no need to rush.

Microsoft, for some odd unknown reason, has many flavors of Vista. Personally, I think it is stupid. The more confusing you make it for the consumer, the more the consumer is likely to think "hmmm, LINUX?" That is another story, as there even more flavors of Linux, but at least going Linux won't bust your back pocket. More on Linux in a bit...

Anyway, if you are going to go with Vista, here are a few considerations. They have something called a "Vista Upgrade Path" which essentially means you cannot upgrade to a lower level Windows. For instance, I could upgrade my laptop from XP Home to Vista Business (keeping my old settings) but could not upgrade from XP Professional on my main computer to Vista Business. On my main computer, I had to format my hard drive and install the operating system fresh, not a bad option in my opinion. Anyway, click on this
Microsoft link so you can figure out for yourself what you need to do.

By the way, I usually install a program or operating system first on my laptop. Once I get that figured out and running fine, then I take what I learned and apply it to my main computer.

Here's another thing I learned: give yourself time to install (it does take several hours) and then tweak. Microsoft leaves on so many #$%$ security warnings and what not that Vista was unusable until I was able to get in and turn off all the darn warnings, pretty visuals, and things that I was not interested in. Vista, like many programs, is bloated. It comes with a bunch of junk you don't need. I know, I know... some of you are thinking "GO MAC" or "GO LINUX." First off, I've tried Macs and just do not see what the big deal is. They are expensive and are not problem free, no matter what their cutsie ads are saying. Linux? Ahhh, another matter. I continue to play around with a few flavors (and there are a bunch): Knoppix and Ubuntu. The Paradise Valley Community College Computer Commons lab technicians like Randy Babick turned me on to
Ubuntu Linux recently. Like Knoppix, you can create a boot cd/dvd disk with Ubuntu so you can fool around with another operating system without messing up your Windows installation. One of the challenges of using a Linux operating system is finding workable drivers for your peripherals. I like my scanner, my printers, my tablet, and cameras to work on an operating system. BUT, the thing about Knoppix and Ubuntu is it is free. Another Linux flavor to look at is Linspire. By the way, they recently have announced a development agreement with the Ubuntu people. If all the Linux types could row the boat in the same direction it would give some hope of a legitimate competitor to Windows and Microsoft. My advice is download a few of the Linux flavors, create a CD bootable disk, and play around with them in your spare time.

Now, back to installing Vista! When you start the Vista installation disk, it will give you an opportunity to save all of your important data from your old computer. This is a good feature! I use two (I know, I"m paranoid) portable USB hard drives as a backup for my documents and pictures, so I was able to have the Vista startup disk make a backup of those files. It ended up being a +15gb file, but I was able to run it once Vista had installed and had all of my settings and files working in the new operating system. My email pretty much worked, although I scrapped the new Windows Mail for Outlook (within Office 2007). Some of you may want to use
Thunderbird, which is free but will not let you read your web-based email accounts.

I did find a few little surprises after installing Vista Business... on my main computer, my old Logitech 510 webcam did not work! Vista simply said "nope, not gonna run" in Vista, no matter what I did. OK, fine... so I went out and got the latest and greatest Logitech camera, the
Ultravision, and it works fine. In fact, one of the neat features of this camera is how it can somehow magically light an almost dark room. Spooky, but it works. The picture you see of me at the rop of this page (frightening, huh?) is from a nearly dark room.

NOW, I am going to save you time. You can learn from my mistakes. If you want this Aero and all the pretty junk that comes with Vista, fine. You will go ga ga over Vista. As for me, I want a system that runs fast, runs the programs I want and the peripherals I use, and to heck with the pretty 3D thingies and sounds that go ba boom. You are going to waste time trying to find out where everything is in Control Panel, for instance.

Here is the first utility to download:
TweakVI from Totalidea. Go ahead and start with the free version. There are all kinds of tweaks you can set in Vista; you really need to take a look. This one will improve the performance of your operating system, I promise. Another great site you need to save is Tweak Vista. In fact, before I did the Vista install, I printed out all of these Vista Tweaks I was likely to use and circled them as a reminder. Click here for even more Vista tweaks. Everybody's needs are different, so use the tweaks that fit your style.

Oh, one other surprise when I installed Vista was that a version of McAfee Virus Checker I had was not compatible with Vista. Uggggh, so I downloaded and happily use the FREE version of
AVG from Grisoft. I should have switched long ago. It works fine with Vista. And did I say it is FREE???

I love free or low cost good working programs and utilities. Given most of the commercial stuff on the market today costs big bucks and is filled with garbage, why pay for what you don't use?

Let me give you a perfect illustraton of bloatware. Roxio. I used the Easy Creator 9 Suite under XP. Many of the programs in the suite I just did not need, so I didn't install them. All I wanted was a good utility to let me easily burn CD's and DVD's. Well, I tossed this product out after installing Vista. It is simply not Vista ready, no matter what their site says. Nero is another choice but that is another case of a sub-$100 program with alot of bloat. So I did a search. I found a gem of a CD/DVD burning software called
Ashampoo Burning Studio 7. Download this sucker and try it out for free. I've tried it and it flawlessly burned music and videos. None of the burns are speedy; one of the things I dislike about CD/DVD burners. BUT, the software just WORKED!

By the way, my hunt was made much easier once I found this "best ever" site from the
Tech Support Alert folks. Some of the stuff they recommended I wasn't too fond of but some of it was great!

This is enough to get you started on Vista. In my next installment, I am going to recommend more great tweaks and utilities to make your Vista experience better.

Happy Computing,

Jim Patterson
Professor of Business/Information Technology
Paradise Valley Community College
Phoenix, Arizona