Planning your digital project: Finding the right tool for the job

As educators, it’s tempting to see an unfamiliar, yet “sparkly” new technology and to want to use it for the sake of doing something “cutting edge.”

This is a normal reaction (much preferred over hiding from new technologies and hoping they’ll go away), and one that can be and should be harnessed to expand our educational toolboxes. Like with any tool, however, we must learn when to use it and how. Would you use a bulldozer for your garden when a shovel will do?

Here are some questions to think about when planning a digital project.

  1. As with any project, a digital project should have a defined goal. Is the goal to convey information? To engage? To inspire action?
  2. Decide how you will measure your success in reaching your goal. Size of audience? Recommendations and comments of audience? Improved test scores?
  3. Next, define your audience. What age group do you want to reach? What education level? How comfortable are they with new technology? Do they have the downloads and plugins necessary to view your material?
  4. Will the project need to be maintained after launch? If so, how will this happen?
  5. How will your project meet W3C accessibility guidelines? This is an especially important question to ask if your institution receives public funding (though really everyone benefits from accessibility principles). Public universities such as the University of Washington are required by law to make their information accessible. (Good accessibility improves the user experience for everyone – consider how some web sites are so much easier to navigate on an iPhone than others.) Examples of accessibility guidelines include:
  • Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content
  • Don’t rely on color alone
  • Design for device-independence (such as screen readers, non-mouse users, etc.)

With these things in mind, it’s possible to start sorting through that digital toolkit for the best tool for the job.

Is there a chronology that could be more easily depicted using a graphic or Flash? Are there images that could tell the story using a slideshow? Would a video collage give the best representation of your work?

If you are working on a web site and you want to reach a broad audience, you will want to limit the amount of high-bandwidth material, such as images and video, on the home page. Put users in control and only make them download information when they choose to.

Is there a way for blind or deaf users to get the content that is in your video? Or the person who isn’t allowed to watch video at work? Or the dial-up connection user who has disabled images and javascript?

What medium best illustrates your project? Photos, video, audio, the written word? Don’t force your project into a mold. Each project is different and should be treated as such.

When working on the web, don’t forget about the power of linking. Can you link to complementary resources? (Bonus: This also improves search engine optimization.)

Embed Soundslides into WordPress.com using VodPod

I took on the challenge of some of the COM students to figure out a way to embed Soundslides into their WordPress.com blogs. At first, I didn’t think it could be done. After all, Soundslides’ site says so. But then I noticed something new that WordPress was promoting called VodPod. It allows you to insert your own embed code so I thought I would give it a try. It works! The video I got didn’t have the play button included, but it plays when you click on it so it is functional.

Creating the code for your embed (create this in Notepad for copy/paste later):

  1. Go to http://students.washington.edu/username/publish_to_web/small.html. (This will go to the smaller version of your presentation, which will fit into WordPress.)
  2. Click View > Source.
  3. Copy everything between the <object> tags (including the object tags) and paste into Notepad.
  4. Copy the video url and end with the folder name (so without the small.html at the end). So http://students.washington.edu/username/publish_to_web/
  5. Paste into your Notepad code in the two places before “soundslider.swf”

Using Vodpod to post to WordPress:

  1. Drag the “Post to WordPress” button to your toolbar: http://vodpod.com/wordpress/
  2. Go to the url with your Soundslides presentation: http://students.washington.edu/username/publish_to_web/small.html
  3. Click “Post to WordPress” from your toolbar.
  4. Click “Click if you’re having trouble” below the preview screen. (This will allow you to paste the embed code manually.)
  5. Paste everything from your Notepad document into the box.
  6. Fill in the rest of the blanks (blog url, username, password) and click Publish.

That’s it!

Review of Kodak HD zi8

I got to play with the Kodak HD zi8 this weekend and was impressed with the quality of the video. The ZI8 is competing with the Flip HD in the pocket camcorder market. Pocket camcorders are useful for our students because they can focus on telling the story rather than trying to figure out the settings on the video camera.

There are several drawbacks that keep me from recommending this camera to everyone.

Pros:

  • HD video quality
  • external mic input
  • rechargeable batteries
  • records up to 1080p, but settings can be adjusted to capture greater quantity of video or increase battery life
  • connects to standard tripod
  • connects directly to computer via USB to upload to YouTube or Facebook
  • doesn’t require any special software to play video

Cons

  • Big one for me was this records to .mov so you can’t edit this file in Windows Movie Maker without converting to different format (though Kodak does have its own software you can download from the camera if you want to use that on a personal computer).
  • requires SDHC memory card – probably need at least an 8 GB card to get a decent amount of video before having to download it to the computer (allows up to 32 GB card).
  • not as intuitive as Flip camera. There are more buttons and more settings (though I wouldn’t say it’s difficult to figure out – it might take 3 minutes instead of 30 seconds with the flip).
  • round bottom means you can’t just place camera on table. You will need a tripod of some sort. (You might be able to get it to balance on a table if you take the wrist strap off.)
  • batteries seem to run down quickly, though I haven’t used it enough to say how long they will last. Other reviews suggest they will last 1 hour, 16 minutes at 720p with image stabilization on.

If you like Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Player then definitely stick with the Flip.

If you will be uploading most of your videos to YouTube  and you don’t mind paying extra for the memory card this would probably be a great camera for you. If you want to use an external mic, this is also the camera for you.

Twitter 101 for educators

I’ve been so excited lately about the potential I see for Twitter as a learning tool. But Twitter does have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to understanding potential uses. It’s easy to set up a Twitter account and start sending status updates. But what is more important than this, I think, is what you do after that: Follow other people.

@TheBeginning

When you go to your Twitter home page it will show you a chronological stream of content from all the people you follow. The quality of that content depends on the quality of the people you follow. I am interested in news, social media, and technology in education so I follow news organizations such as @cnnbrk (CNN Breaking News), @msnbc_us, and @nytimes (New York Times), and social media and education types such as @chrispirillo, @kegill, and @smcseattle (Social Media Club Seattle).

What, you might ask, is the @ symbol in front of all those Twitter names (also known as Twitter handles)? The @ can be used to reply to a post or it can be used to give credit to a source when retweeting.

What’s retweeting? A retweet looks something like this: RT @jdlasica: In case you were wondering, yes, @lancearmstronG is tweeting quite a bit during the Tour de France #uwtwtrbook.

The RT stands for retweet. It’s used when you like something someone has has tweeted and you want to repeat it – or retweet it. You will also notice in this example that the @ symbol has been used for Lance Armstrong so readers can easily find his Twitter feed by clicking on the link that is automatically created whenever you use the @ symbol.

Hashtags

Also in this example above, we see something called a hashtag. You can create a hashtag simply by placing the # symbol in front of a word or abbreviation.

The hashtag is extremely useful for categorizing information. For example, an instructor might have everyone in a class tweet their reflections on a class and give it a specific hashtag, for example, #com346. Then the instructor, and the students, can do a search from the main Twitter page for #com346 and all the tweets with this hashtag will show up in chronological order. This can help instructors monitor class progress and questions and can help students review class notes and read other students’ reflections.

If you have the technology in the classroom it can be helpful to have the Tweets show up in real time on a projected screen using an application like Tweetdeck, which you can set up to show different hashtags and groups of people you are following.

Hashtags are also commonly used for special events like lectures and conferences (it’s helpful if someone announces the hashtag at the beginning of the event so everyone can use and follow the same one). For example, a conference on environmental journalism might have the hashtag #greenj. Try to come up with something logical, short and memorable.

A group might also want to start using a specific hashtag (though no one can own a specific hashtag – check to make sure no one else is using the hashtag you want to use). For example, students in the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program regularly use the hashtag #uwmcdm to post content relevant to other MCDM students.

Finding people to follow

As I said before, the quality of your Twitter experience relies on the quality of who you follow. But how do you find people to follow? One way is just to search by keyword. There are also many sites that are devoted to helping you find people with similar interests. WeFollow is one such site. Twibes is another. LocalTweeps is a site that sends you Tweets if you are in a geographic location of a registered event.

You will notice as you start following people you will suddenly get a lot of followers. The decision of whether to follow them or not is up to you. I usually check out the timeline of someone who has followed me. If the information is relevant to me then I follow them. If it looks like spam I don’t.

There’s a lot more about Twitter that I could go into. But this should be enough to get you started. And don’t feel like you have to read everything the people you are following tweet. Scan through when you think of it. If you have time to click on a few links, great. If not, don’t worry about it. The nice thing about Twitter is that the people you are following will filter information for you. If it’s really important it will probably come up again from another friend. Think of it as fishing for information. There are always more fish in the pond, but you only need to catch a few to be happy.

If you would like to take a look at some of the applications that have been developed for use with Twitter, there is a fan wiki with a lot of information.

You can follow my tweets at @UWComm.


Social Explorer maps U.S. Census data

If you’re looking for a visual representation of Census data, you should check out Social Explorer.  The site has maps you can filter to look at population, race, religion, commuting time, income, etc. If it was on the Census form you can filter for it. You can save maps, and even create slideshows like this one, showing the areas where Michael Jackson grew up.

Besides maps you can also create customized reports of the information you are looking for under the Reports tab.

The free edition is open to the general public. If you have a UWNetID or other access through an educational institution, you can access the Professional edition.

Hobnox Audiotool lets you create your own electronic music

If you’ve been looking for something a bit like Garage Band that you can use on a PC or a Mac, you might like Hobnox Beta’s Audiotool and Tone Matrix, which works directly from your browser.

The Audiotool looks and acts like a mixing board and you use your mouse to turn on the instruments and rhythms you want to use. It’s not exactly intuitive, but it’s hard to mess things up and you can get a rhythm going just by clicking a couple buttons and hitting the play button. The tool itself took a bit to load, but once it was open I didn’t experience any delays of the tool.  Though if you don’t have a broadband connection you  might have a hard time using this tool.

In addition to the instuments, there is something called the tone matrix. The user clicks on as many or as few dots as she wants and when the play button is pushed everything comes together to create, hopefully, something that sounds good. I wasn’t able to produce anything that sounded TOO terrible.

Recording is easy. You hit the record button in the upper left corner and you can record up to 5 minutes at a time. The recorded file is saved to “myFiles” where you have 2,048 MB of storage. If you want more storage than that, you will probably be able to buy a premium account soon.

The file is saved in OGG format so it’s easy to download the file and then put it into another audio editor like Audacity if you want.

I will have to continue playing with this tool more to see if I can really get something that would work as background music for a podcast or video. What I have been able to create so far sounds very generic and electronic.  Here are some examples of songs created using the Audiotool, but beware this page crashed my browser once.

The Audiotool isn’t the only thing Hobnox has. The welcome message says you can:

– WATCH: Videos on Hobnox-TV or images, videos and music uploaded by other users on the Stage
– CONNECT: find new friends and/or like-minded patricipants and start a music, film or art project in the Community
– CREATE: create a blog and check out the Noxtools to make music or to go on air with your own livestream

Let me know what you think about Hobnox and its Audiotool.

Digital journalism class examines changing news industry

Communication professor Kathy Gill’s digital journalism class explored the future of news and created multimedia stories during the spring. Check out their insightful blog, The Future of News.

Here are links to their individual projects:

Adam: UW Student Serves As Translator in Ecuador

Andrew: Duncan’s Glorious Summer

Jeff: Raiders Softball

Michelle: Interview With Potential Communication Student

Paul: Spot.us – Crowdfunded Journalism

Reisha: Twitter As PR Tool

Ryan: Magical Heroine

Sarah: New Technologies in the 13th Coast Guard District

Scott: Where’s my paycheck? Thoughts on the future of journalism