Category Archives: Software

Vine in the Classroom

A Vine is a mobile app owned by twitter. It allows users to create and post six second videos and share on social media. Now you may think that having only six seconds to express yourself would be the kiss of death for education, but as a general principle restriction is the mother of creativity, and a quick look at the following should illustrate my point.


Having only six seconds to make any point forces a student to summarize information concisely and succinctly. To do this successfully you need to understand the content completely. Good vines usually involve adequate planning and accurate execution, skills that we should be promoting in our schools. In the English classroom, students could create vines in the persona of a character from literature, a character selfie instead of a character sketch, if you like, encouraging a student to step into the shoes of the character and try to understand their soul.

Students could also make six second videos illustrating points of grammar, or solving a Maths problem – the applications are virtually endless. You do not have to use the app either. Videos can be made using any technology and posted on any platform. They can be put together quite quickly too. Most kids have cell-phones capable of filming short clips, and VideoPad or something similar makes for a very handy editing tool. A six second clip should not take longer than about twenty minutes to film and edit!

Best of all vines are fun to make and watch – and should become a useful weapon in any teacher’s armoury.



Turning your students into movie directors with Plotagon


There can be very few things in life as satisfying as seeing your ideas come to fruition before your eyes, and what I like about Plotagon is that it produces an animated movie from text dialogues.

OK the actors don’t deliver Oscar-winning performances – they look as if they’ve just walked off the set of Second Life The Movie, and their voices are obviously computer generated. But they do respond to the actions you select for them, and they speak the lines you write.

The applications of this in the classroom, it strikes me, are practically endless. Students can use it to write short scripts which then get rendered as movies. It could be used for just about any report back situation, for creative writing, or for creative ways of adding to presentations. Teachers of course could also use it to add content to their presentations, or flipped-learning content.

The application requires a download to your computer, and for you to register a free account. You can then link this to a Youtube account, or share your movies to Facebook or Twitter.

The interface itself is fairly simple to master, so you would not have to “teach” students to use it. You simply choose a scene and add actors, actions, movement, sound tracks and dialogue in sequence. You can preview the movie as you create it, and add sequences in any order.

When you are ready, you render the movie by sharing it to your account.

A down-side is that you cannot download the movie directly to your computer, but you can still add it to presentations via Youtube, or even download it from Youtube using KeepVid.

What I think is quite valuable, pedagogically is that it produces a very graphic output from a text-based input, which is great for the second or foreign language classroom in particular. It also allows students to spend time reflecting on their work, which is not always the case when they are filming using a camera.

Here’s one I made in about ten minutes, which I hope demonstrates the possibilities, and whets your appetite to try it out for yourself!.



PDF to Word Conversion

One of the most annoying features of the digital landscape is the nasty little surprises one gets when trying to change a document from one format to another. It is very easy, for example to change a Word document to a PDF document, but when you try to convert it the other way round, you will find that a PDF document saved as a Word document emerges with the text as an image, which you cannot then edit to suit your own purposes.

There is a fantastic array of worksheets, lesson plans and so on, available for download off the Internet, which the authors are offering for others to use, free of charge and free of copyright. And many of these have been saved as a PDF to ensure cross-platform compatibility. The other day I wanted to use one of these worksheets I had downloaded some time before. I wanted to keep the original citations, but I did want to format the page a little, and re-size it so that I could ensure that it fitted on a single page. Unfortunately the PDF format meant that I could not do any useful editing once converted to Word, since the conversion process rendered the text as an image. I have also, in the past wanted to take text from a PDF to use for a comprehension passage, and have found this extremely frustrating.

I was very pleased to learn about a service offered by CometDocs at which allows you to convert PDF to editable Word documents. To use it you go to the website. It requires no sign up. You upload the PDF file you wish to convert (apparently up to 40MB) and enter your email. After a short while you receive an email with a link to where you can download the file in Word Format. I found the conversion very faithful and fully editable.

What I found impressive about this was the prospect it opened up for much easier editing of PDF documents generally. At my school I am responsible for running off progress reports, which we PDF at the end of each run and archive. Invariably we get requests, even years later, for changes to be made to the reports. While one can edit a PDF it is not the easiest or most user-friendly thing you have ever done. Often fonts are affected or blocks of text displaced in the process. I tested to see if I could edit it more easily using this service, and the results were not only excellent, but the process quick as well.

How can this great tool be used pedagogically then? To my mind, the ease with which this allows one to convert from PDF to Word, and then back again using the save as Word function inside Word, allows one to consider using a far wider range of resources for use in comprehension tests, examination papers, worksheets and so on. So long as you do not breach copyright, or plagiarism protocols, this frees up a whole new world for in-house materials development. This is especially important when creating Blended Learning course-work. You will often need to adapt work created for face-to-face situations for an online purpose, and this requires substantial editing so that parts of a text can be highlighted, or scaffolded in some way. This free to use web service makes this easy!


Creating in the Cloud

I have just come across a site, which gives you and your students access to a range of some pretty exciting creative tools: both for visual and sound editing and creation. The site also allows you to register a class account (absolutely free), with student accounts, and allows you to manage projects.

What appeals is both the ease of use – my eleven year old son was quickly creating sound and image files – and the power of the applications. Its price (ie. free) is pretty attractive too! I am lucky in that the school where I teach has an Adobe CS3 license for all its computers. When I arrived at the school, every computer had PhotoShop loaded, but the students were not really able to use it. I quickly added it to the Computer Skills syllabus, and now teach PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver from Grade 8 to 10. I have not really tackled audio creation programmes like Audacity yet, but many of the students use Garage  Band, and it is hard to see how anyone can consider themselves computer literate, or indeed literate, these days without a passing knowledge of both graphics and audio programs. I would never want to replace the sheer power of a package such as PhotoShop. I have used The Gimp, which is a freely available open source alternative, and I don’t want to give the impression that I would want to detract from both these offerings in any way. However, I found the applications on Aviary quite powerful, and very easy to use.

Computing in the Cloud has its advantages and disadvantages, and personally I am old-fashioned enough to prefer software that I have purchased or downloaded, sitting on my machine, but then again I preferred DOS to Windows, and well, the list goes on! The advantages of The Cloud are not lost on me either, though, and especially when it comes to graphics and audio packages, which tend to be very pricey, the access it offers to students who would otherwise not have access to similar software is huge.

Why is graphics software, especially, so important? Traditionally Education has focused on text-based study. The image of a scholar is of one whose nose is buried in a book, and learning is measured by reading. Students have not been called upon to learn visually, or to express their ideas visually. Exams are taken in written form, and diagrams kept to a minimum. And yet, how does the expression go? A picture is worth a thousand words? Our culture is somewhat ambivalent about the importance of visual input, and it would be fair to say that graphic representation in newspapers, text-books, and so on has been on the rise throughout the twentieth century. Indeed it is hard to imagine any form of message going out without a visual component. This being the case, it is equally hard to imagine that anyone could be considered literate without an understanding, at the very least, of visual literacy, and at best, a mastery of visual editing and creation. The same can be said for musical and audio editing and creation.

A picture comes into my head of the accomplished nineteenth century lady, whose sketching and mastery of the piano-forte recommended her socially. But that is precisely it! If you can’t PhotoShop out the zits on your Facebook profile pic, or post a halfway decent YouTube video, do you belong in the 21st Century?


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SCORM in a tea-cup!

An essential part of the trend towards standing the classroom on its head – in other words doing in class what used to be done for homework, and doing for homework what used to be done in class – is the need to create coherent, engaging and useful content that students can access anywhere, anytime. A SCORM stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model and it is a standard used for creating eLearning content.

I use it, for example to convert content created in a PowerPoint Presentation into a Flash file which can be posted on my Moodle platform. These SCORMs can then be viewed and reviewed by students whenever they need to do so in order to master the content. The presentation is made up of a series of slides which can include animated sequences, and a voice-over. If you embed video filmed using your web-camera, you can have a talking head as well.

The main value of the SCORM is that it is controlled by the student. It is available online and therefore can be accessed at convenience, and it can be stopped, re-played and forwarded as often as is required. It can also be downloaded or emailed to students directly. The SCORM takes teacher talk, what used to dominate the classroom, and places it under student control, in the homework environment. By using pictures, video footage and keywords, the teacher can create SCORMs which are motivating, engaging, and effective.

The software that I use currently is iSpringPresenter and authorPOINT Lite, which are free to download and use.  iSpring Presenter works as a plug-in in your PowerPoint, which makes it very easy to publish a flash SCORM straight from the PowerPoint.


Personalising Assessment

We all know that curriculum is driven by assessment. Teachers will only teach what will help their students pass their exams. The tail wags the dog so to speak! Assessment strategies are thus vital tools in curriculum change, and to my mind form the cutting edge of change. Technology offers the promise of changing the way in which assessment is done.

Perhaps one of the most innovative uses of software to drive pedagogical change can be seen in Personalisation by Pieces, a platform which uses peer mentoring and assessment to drive mastery of the curriculum. Children prepare assignments which are then submitted to a peer who has already mastered the level being assessed. This peer assesses the assignment, gives feedback, and ascertains that the criteria for attaining that level have been met. The student is then ready to submit further work at the next level. All work is submitted and received electronically, and the software keeps a record of attainment targets. Skill sets are presented in the form of ladders, steps which need to be attained to fulfill the outcomes.

I don’t want to look in too much detail at this particular piece of software, but it does seem to me to offer very crucial affordances which non-electronic approaches to personalizing learning lack. The key affordance is the communicative function at the heart of the system. The system depends merely on a community of learners and an Internet connection. Mentoring and assessment is done by peers, and occasionally teachers (an emergency measure). Electronic media offer a rich array of communication channels, and widen the pool of people with whom the child may come into contact.

Paper-based systems would require mountains of bureaucracy. It is hard to imagine that a similar system based on non-electronic media would ever become viable. By using an electronic medium, control of the process can be placed squarely in the hands of the user, ie. the student. The learner chooses what skills to target, and which mentors and assessors to draw from.

A second key affordance is the effortless way in which the software can keep a record of what has been attained, what work has been offered for assessment, and what the outcomes of that assessment are. The checks within the system make it impossible to attempt levels which are too far beyond the present competency of each child, and encourage children to attempt more work, rather than less work. I know, as a teacher, how onerous record-keeping can become. The software in very important ways frees the teacher up to teach. With assessment being undertaken by peers, teachers are freed up too to undertake more thorough preparation and engage on more one-on-one interventions.

And finally, and perhaps most crucially, it seems to me that electronic media offer a sense of personal and collegiate responsibility for learning, which is lacking in many traditional systems where teachers often seem to care more than children about the learning that is going on. Precisely because it channels through an anonymous interface rather than an individual class, or subject teacher, it encourages the child to take responsibility for his/her own learning and to direct this learning independently. It helps create a community of practice.

This system is certainly worth looking at, and offers one of the really transformative solutions I have come across.

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Posted by on November 17, 2010 in Assessment, Pedagogy, Software, Teaching

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