BestoftheWeb: My Most Useful Tools

a simulpost with TechLearning

Bloggers, we need to work on welcoming folks to the Internet and that includes sharing our tools. I encourage you to share your most useful tools and websites with your readers. Tag it bestoftheweb

Let me start by saying, I know I’ll forget something, but here is my list.

  • BLOGGING:

    • Blogger: This is where I blog. Yes, wordpress and typepad are “prettier,” but integration with searches from Google is where its at and despite what folks say, nothing is integrated more tightly with Google Blog search and Google search than blogger. Period. If you’re not found, you’re not heard. So, if you use another platform, you’d better make sure you submit your URL to Google so you’ll be found.
    • Sources for content: Creative Commons Search and Youtube will turn up great sources for content or to add emphasis. When I get concerned about participating in group think, I pull myself out of the rut, I often go to Stumble upon, Digg, Twittervision, Flickrvision, or read the News at newsmap. It is so important to not only read IN education but also intentionally pull out of education and read other things. Don’t think the “gurus” know it all. They don’t. Sometimes they are wrong. Grassroots folks are important. I also read those who are writing about my work using my watchlist in technorati. (I also pay special attention to new bloggers, sometimes a comment from someone they’ve linked to will keep them going.) I also browse and read the tags I’m following in Education.
    • Tagging – If you have read 10 Habits of bloggers that win, you’ll understand the importance of tags. I use the Tag Editor firefox add on.
  • Blogging Widgets and Add Ons:
    • Feedburner – This takes your RSS feed and makes it really useful. I use it to splice my del.icio.us links into my feed (something that many of my readers often tell me they like best. So much for blogging. ;-)) I also suggest you use the show feed readers button, add e-mail subscribe ability (for those who just can’t do RSS), and a big RSS “chicklet” in the top left or top right corner of your blog. You can also use it to add all kinds of cool things at the bottom of a post (called Feed Flare). (I also love Feedburner because it lets me take the school blogs and import them onto the website. See my blog about how to use RSS to automate your website.)
    • Show Me Widget – This is a must use for bloggers. If you go to my blog and look on the left hand side, it shows you all of the places I communicate. Until the Open Social API takes hold, this widget helps others connect with you.
  • RSS Readers
    • I think that each of us should have two types of RSS readers: the visually organized RSS reader and our “power reader.” It is about fast, easy access. We are so shaped by the information we surround ourselves with. None of us have any time, so setting up good RSS readers will pay big dividends in all areas of your life.
      • Visual RSS Readers
        I have two favorites for this. I start up using my iGoogle page which includes several of my favorite blogs (shhh I’m not telling), my Airset calendar, my weather, Google Groups. It also includes a tab for “work” which includes a quick view of my Google Reader, access to my Google docs, and my Google Notebook. I also have a tab for my own “fun” including movie times and ratings, ratings of top products from PC Mag, an RSS feed of the top videos on Google video and youtube (and no they aren’t the same), a recipe of the day and a feed from Interesting thing of the Day and How Stuff Works.

        NetvibesMy Teacher Dashboard – I use this for grading ALL of my student work. All of the wiki edits and comments, RSS feeds from public student Nings, public student blogs, etc. are here. The way this RSS reader works is ideal for grading and just so easy. It is the one I teach my students. I have at least 10 tabs in here!! If you want to know how I set this up, use the free tutorial that I created over at Atomic Learning where I give you a behind the scenes tour of how I set this up. Of note to principals is how I follow the youtube videos, etc. that are posted with my school’s name. I am now calling this my teacher “dashboard.” I can dash over there and see everything at a glance, all new things, all issues, all comments… everything!

      • Power RSS Reader – While I’ve used bloglines for two years, I’ve been gradually moving to Google Reader just because it is so unbelievably easy to use. It is chock full of features, not to mention the recent implementation of Google Gears which allows me to read my Google Reader OFFLINE! So, when you go on that long trip, the kids can watch a DVD, and you can catch up on your RSS! Just so cool. (And for those who don’t want to set up delicious, the google clip service is really cool.)
  • My Personal Learning Network
    Besides my RSS reader, these are other things I use to learn. (Also see above, other sources for content.)
    • iTunes – More people listen to podcasts on PC’s than on their ipod. This free software is my best friend and companion many times. Mood is often affected by music and sometimes we don’t need medication, we need music! (I wish more schools allowed kids to work with ipods on!) If I’m stressed, sometimes a little Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, Indigo Girls, or even a Disney tune just snaps me right out of it!
    • ipod – I always thought it was hype. It’s not. My nano is with me. I have turned my most despised task of washing dishes and clothes into a joyous one, as I listen to the Wall Street Journal, Businessweek, anything from Twit TV (Leo LaPorte is da man!) , the shows at Edtech talk, the Bored Again Christian, or whatever podcast suits my fancy. I’m often adding and removing podcasts.

      (When I’m working on computers, I always have my earbuds in and am listening to something. Honestly, it helps me focus and it is why I let my students do the same. If you want to see them type a term paper in no time flat, give them their iPod and see what happens. You’ll see that they work, don’t talk to neighbors and focus. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to provide, a great working environment?)

    • Twitter – Twitter isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re going to test, use, and innovate on the bleeding edge, it is a must. When I decided to ustream, I went online and asked if anyone was “around” and had 6 people helping me test it within moments. It has sped my own R&D cycle up considerably and has prevented me from taking things into the classroom that don’t belong there. Oh, and I actually use snitter to twitter. (And while some talk about leaving the blogosphere for twitter, I think this is a bit ridiculous. There is a place for both. Twitter is like the backchannel of the blogosphere but not its replacement.)

    • Newsmap – The most efficient way to read the news. Period.
    • My students (and family)- I have a private ning for all of my students. The Ninth graders also blog at youth voices. Flat classroom students blog and communicate over on their Ning. I read student work more than everything else combined (since I am a teacher) and I find that it refreshes me, gives me hope, excites me, teaches me, and makes me a better person and more focused teacher. When my students reflect on my classroom it is like an instant focus group. Why wait to survey them at the end of the year? If they are reflecting daily, you’re learning daily what works.

      My kids are some of the greatest teachers about technology. I take the time to learn the newest Xbox game (although when I play call of Duty, I can’t climb the darn ladder) or adopt a Webkinz or IM my own children. I listen a lot! I am a parent who loves them and I want to be IN their world. It takes effort but it is worth it and it makes me a better teacher (and mom.)

  • Other Important tools

    • Del.icio.usThe best bookmarking and sharing tool. Period. I want to play with Diigo which integrates with Delicious, but for now, Delicious is it.
    • Screen Capture – I’ve used CamStudio for screen captures, but have recently begun using Camtasia. I love it, however, if you cannot afford it, head over to the free Jing Project. I believe that screen capture is an essential skill. The reason that I love Camtasia is that the codecs are great, and it gives you the ability to render for just about any platform.

      Oh, and if you’re going to screen capture, Sizer is a must download tool that automatically sets windows to the default video sizes. (Otherwise, you’ll get blurry images.)

    • Video Editing and Conversion – I use a smattering of products for this. For editing screen captures, I use the Camtasia Studio. When I want to green screen, I use Pinnacle Studio 10 (thanks Dean Shareski).

      A must own for anyone editing video is Quick Time Pro. It allows you to convert all kinds of video formats, grab still shots of video, and has a robust editing program in this deceivingly simple looking software. You can even rip mp3 files off of quick time videos and produce video for the iPod or iPhone. It runs around $30.

      But if you need to convert and want something FREE try Zamzar. It converts between all types of formats… even those nasty Open Office to Microsoft Word conversions.

      Other great multimedia tools that are Free, Windows Movie Maker, PhotoStory, VoiceThread, Slideshare (try slidecasting), Animoto, and my sister loves iMovie.

    • Video for the Classroom – Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones who uses youtube in the classroom and do so at least twice a day. Nothing like video to pull them in! But, for longer videos and high quality teacher materials, nothing beats the united streaming service from Discovery Educators. This service has recently been provided for our teachers here and I’ve just finished training all of the teachers. From the word of a veteran teacher, “Finally a technology I can use.” The videos are searchable by topic, grade level, and include standards, teacher guides, and quizzes. If your library is wasting money on DVD’s, tell them to STOP and purchase united streaming. It is a must!
    • Synchronous Communications – For communicating one on one, I love Skype. We use it at my school to provide tech support to teachers, send files, resolve issues quickly. It is great. I also love Google Talk but can only communicate with those who have gmail accounts. (like my whole family)

      For real collaborative projects and group meetings, Elluminate is my favorite. With the seven teachers for Flat Classroom it is IMPOSSIBLE to get us all awake at the same time, so we use elluminate for the 3-4 who can meet to get together and then we record it and send the recording to the others. They have an mp3 feature coming soon which will make it even more useful. You can use a vroom for free and Elluminate Live is free also. I believe every student should know how to use a live classroom environment such as elluminate. They WILL use it in college.

    • Asynchronous Communications – OK, my name is Vicki and I love wikis. I can’t help it. Is it any wonder? They are easy to use, have a super quick learning curve, and are trackable down to the comma. You can control editing and even make them private. As most folks know wikispaces is my favorite. Not that the other folks aren’t great, but I KNOW Adam and the folks at wikispaces and when I have a problem it is solved in moments. They listen to educators and were one of the first organizations to offer ad-free services of any kind. I have my class wiki, the Flat Classroom Wiki, the Horizon project wiki, my cool cat teacher wiki for presentations, and the k12 wiki to train teachers.

      It is also important when collaborating globally to decide how you’re going to connect the students. Our first project, we shared e-mails. Then, after experiencing it, we think that is not a good idea. Using a social network like Ning allows the students to communicate, and a comment on a student’s page generates an e-mail nudge to come over to the Ning. It allows us to coach the process. Great tool!

    • Airset – I’ve blogged about this one before. Airset is my life. I now have airset on my cell phone (b/c I can’t afford the Treo I’m dying for!) It handles time zones, runs my family, handles my lists, and even sends text messages to my cell phones (or those in my family) when I enter reminders. (see my posts Rapidly Synchronize your Sanity and time Zones adieu meet Airset.)
    • Cell Phone Tools – My new favorite is 4info.net. In fact, the other day I was talking about this in a conference and a man jumped up and said “I love you!” This handy service lets me subscribe to weather alerts for me. And I have it text me when a Georgia Tech ballgame ends. My son, who literally wouldn’t leave the house on game day, gets a text message for EVERY SCORE CHANGE in a Georgia Tech football game. He went canoing two weekends a go and relaxed, knowing he’d know the score.

      I also use Google SMS– GOOGL – and have taught my students to use Google to translate, find directions, define words, and more.

      Another great service is Jott.com — It is great for sending myself messages when I don’t have a pen handy. I can blog from jott, but usually don’t, my southern accent is a mess with Jott. I have used it to send messages to others when I can’t get to a computer. Very useful!

      I also love Twitter on my cell. Not only can I twitter from cell, but I can receive direct messages on my cell phone. This meant a lot to me this past summer when my grandmother passed away, I received direct messages as condolences. It really helped me a lot.

    • Word Processing – I still love Microsoft Word. The Microsoft Office is a must own for teachers. (Sorry open source guys.) The smart art feature is the best for teachers because it makes creating graphic organizers very easy. But don’t write your blog posts in there or you’ll trash your RSS feed.

      Google Docs is what I use for collaborative editing or writing for blogs. It is a great online office suite.

    • Presentations – Although PowerPoint is the de facto standard, I often create in PowerPoint and pull into Google Presentations. And if you only use PowerPoint in your preso, you’re missing out. You should pull in web resources AND video, which means going to the web. That is where google presentations is so handy. Drop in the link and those following online can go directly there. And remember to recruit a backchannel facilitator beforehand.
    • Live Streaming – Although I’m testing a new service, uStream has still got it!
    • Photo Editing – Guys, PhotoShop is the best. I know there is other stuff out there, but there are some things that I just have to find the money for.

      Some free tools are out there like Gliffy. Also, I love Flickr, and love their tools for automatically adding photos to the school website. Also, everything over at Big Huge Labs is wonderful (and free unless you need a print.) Also, forgive me for this term, but I needed to blow up a photo really really big, and if you want to do that, rasterbator is great for it. (Just don’t tell anyone the name of it.)

    • Webcam – I have a personal Favorite. The Logitech Quickcam Fusion and here is why. It has the most phenomenal avatars, so when you want your students to shoot video and do not want their face on the video, you can still do it. The videos range from princesses to leprechauns and it requires NO geekiness.

      Additionally, it clips to your monitor but can come off easily and be held for video that needs to be a little more mobile. This is one thing you cannot do with permanently affixed webcams.

    • Web BrowserFirefox – Using the add in’s firefox is literally MINE. It is customizable to everything I am and makes it easier to work.
    • E-mail Tools — I use Gmail and have a great new add in called Better Gmail that helps me follow the Inbox Zero principles that I’m following now. If you have Gmail and are using firefox this is a MUST DOWNLOAD!

      If I wasn’t using Gmail, I would be using Thunderbird because of its ability to do templates. You’ve got to use power tools in your e-mail or your e-mail will kill you.

I’m sure there are other things I’m using, however, I’ve been working on this blog post for 3 hours and its late and I need to go to bed! (And I probably missed a few typos too.) So, let me know what I’ve forgotten, will you?

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19 thoughts on “BestoftheWeb: My Most Useful Tools

  1. Hi Vicki, Your timing is impeccable. I am working on a wiki I created a while ago which I establised so that I could put together a whole lot of Web2.0 applications that are really handy for teachers and students in the digital classroom. I am aiming to get much of it completed by Sunday (Aust time) because I have to present at a conference on Monday. Many of the things you mentioned I already have posted but there are some new ones there that I’m looking forward to checking out. I have added your blog to my list of excellent educational blogs. (I would have done it anyway regardless of your current post) I am nowhere in the realm of the work that you do. But you might like to have a look at my work in progress here- http://teaching-with-technology.wikispaces.com/Teacherswhoblog
    regards Anne

  2. LOVE the list! Great stuff… Got 5 new windows open with stuff to explore. One thing though, you say that Photoshop is one of those programs you just need to drop the money for. I’m not so sure anymore for most people. Have you tried Picnik.com yet? In my experience, most people use Photoshop to crop, resize, adjust colors and fix red eye. Picnik does all of those and plays really well with most photosharing sites. Check it out and let me know what you thnink!

  3. Wow Vicki, I can’t wait to dive into your post, there is so much good information you’ve posted. The best part is that you connected all the tools to what you are doing in class. Thanks for posting it!

  4. Great post Vicki. Have you tried AbbyMe yet. It allows you to set up a phone list and then you can go in to the AbbyMe site and select the people you would like to message, type a message in the box and then click Send. It actually calls the people you have selected and then the message you typed in is translated into voice and can be heard when the people answer their phone. It is very cool.

  5. Hi Vicki. Thanks for another incredibly helpful post, the kind I use as a reference and tell people about.

    Did you know that you can easily set Thunderbird up as your email client with Gmail? It works well, especially if you have one computer that you use most of the time. All your email comes into Thunderbird and can be organized there. Works just like MS Outlook, only better. Of course, you have an accessible backup for your email on Google’s servers. Here are the instructions for setting it up: http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=77662

  6. love the list…will go thru it more carefully to see on what I need to “beef up!”
    I do have a question about screen shots…I have no problem simply using the screen shot key and manipulating thru PPT…I am not understanding the “need” for a program…
    Would someone please enlighten me?

    P.S. love your feelings about Blogger!!

  7. Great article! I am using a lot of these tools, have dabbled with others, but as John said, the best part is the examples of how you are using the tools in your teaching and your life. I’ll blog on the topic myself, but I’m not sure I have much to add to what you have mentioned…

  8. Great post. – thanks.

    Recently at the South Carolina EdTech conference the keynote speaker was Deneen Frazier Bowen.
    She made a dramatic case for the use of blogs and other technology in the classroom.
    Yet as you know, so many districts are averse to the use of blogger, youtube, etc.
    I’m glad to see that even in T’ville, there is some progressive thinking! (had to take a shot – sorry!)

  9. Wonderful sharing, Vicki. I’d add:

    For screencasts, Screencast-o-matic. It’s web-based, allows 15 instead of Jing’s 5 minutes, hosting, download, comments, popup annotations, channels, more. Plus AJ is a great, responsive developer there who quickly delivers new features when I request them.

    I just left Blogger for a self-hosted WordPress, so I can install plug-ins like “All-in-One SEO” that allow me to metatag for Google blog-search pickup. I love Blogger’s ease, but the lack of pages and dearth of templates (plus the subdomain URL) finally pushed me into WP.

    Wesley Fryer’s use of WordPress pages to make resources like this post more “sticky” was the biggest inspiration to move me to WP.

    Again, great post 🙂

  10. Anne – Thanks for the link, I can’t see all of it, you might want to make it a manual hyperlink in the comments (see my Ten Habits of Bloggers that win for how to do it manually.

    Steve — Maybe for most people they don’t need PhotoShop but I use it like Crazy. Whether it is redesigning my blog or creating images or anything, I have to use it… nothing else will do.

    John, Randy, and Te-Go – Thanks.

    Rodney – I’ll need to look at AbbyMe — Airset can handle my sms for me, but I’ll have to look at that.

    Paul – Yes, you can set up Thunderbird w/ airset however, I like the spam filtration and phishing b/c as there are things that come out, gmail goes and “sucks out” the spam as it is reported by others. That live feature alone makes it worth it to stay in gmail.

    vwb – Sometimes you need to make a tutorial and show how it is done. Screen shots are fine for a manual but in the web, we need video tutorials. They are also great for movies. See what Dean Shareski did with it on his Flat Classroom Keynote.

    TS — T’ville? I live in Camilla, Ga. Smaller than Thomasville if you’re talking about that city.

    Clay – I’ve heard about screencastomatic — I guess with Camtasia, I don’t have to use it. Yes, the widgets, etc. are attractive w/ wordpress, however, I’ve found from my web design experience that any time you move, you lose traffic. Be careful w/ your feeds and also blogger does allow domain pointing. Yes, wordpress looks better, won’t argue with you there… but if it is about traffic (and it is) — blogger gets you there (even if it is blocked in china.)

  11. Hi Vicki
    Some useful tools! I’d also add Flashmeeting to the synchronous tools – it’s very good if you want to have more than one video stream. (www.flashmeeting.com)

    While I can see where you are coming from with your comments about Blogger, rather than WordPress or whatever, I think that it depends on what your primary motivation for blogging is.
    If it’s to share ideas, then, yes, blogger is probably a good starting point.
    However, if you’re thinking about reflection and a more personal centred blog, then it ought to be that tool that offers you the features that you want.
    If other people find it & then like it, that’s good; but if audience size wasn’t your primary motivation, then that’s just extra gloss.

  12. Thanks for the mention of Gliffy. We’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions you have upon using the program. Again, we appreciate the mention!
    debik at gliffy dot com

  13. Hi Vicki
    It’s OK to use the word “folks”. I saw Stephen’s note about that (he gets crotchety sometimes about really little things), as well as your reply, but please, we don’t all share his setiments about how language [should] be used. No apology is needed, and that’s from someone who certainly doesn’t use the word “folks” at all.

  14. I have a question. When you set your student Nings up as private do you then allow them to post their pictures? I have just created 2 private Nings for my students and am going over safety issues and blogging rules and to let them personalize their page goes against the rules for a public site. I just wondered how you handle this.

  15. @mseifried – You may allow premoderation of photographs — it is in your settings for the Ning — I usually start with that but end up without having to do that – -it is in your settings for the ning.

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