Category Archives: Technology

Burning the Midnight Oil

Let’s all admit it – online classes means working on stuff at 11pm or later. (We’ve all been there, both as faculty and student. Personally I did my best work as a student at 2am.)

I’ve become a big fan of f.lux. It’s software which automatically adjusts the color temperature of your monitor based on the time. Basically – when the sun goes down, your monitor will get less blue so it’s not as hard to look at.

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It’s free, and available for both Windows and OS X. Get it at https://justgetflux.com/.

Animated GIFs in PowerPoint

Newer versions of Microsoft PowerPoint now support animated GIF files.

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Remember – Just because PowerPoint has a feature, doesn’t mean you should use it.

Papers and weird file formats

We’ve all been there: a student has sent us their research paper, and Word refuses to open it. It’s not corrupt, it’s just not a Word file.

Here’s file extensions for some of the more common word processors that aren’t Microsoft Word, what program they were created in, and ways you can open them.

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Socrative – In Class Polling and Quizzes

As much as traditional tests are used to measure student learning, there are times that you want more immediate interactivity and feedback. Socrative is a student response system that allows you to do polls or quizzes in real-time and see feedback instantly.

Socrative is free, and works in any classroom where students have access to computers or their own mobile devices. There’s no complicated signup process for students either, just give them a quiz number and they’re ready to go.

Find out more at http://www.socrative.com.

Google+ Hangouts on Air

Our study abroad group visited Harlaxton College in the UK this year. We decided it’d be nice to have a video chat with them for a Q&A session. Skype would have worked fine, but I’d recently sat in on a really cool interview session with Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame on Google+, and thought that’d be a great thing to use for ourselves.

Google+ Hangouts on Air allow you to broadcast your video chat live on YouTube. We had a moderator sitting on the YouTube page taking questions from visitors that way. It also archived the video for us so that we could use it to promote our study abroad program in the future.

My (free) Software Toolbox

I handle a lot of the tech issues that come up for online education, which means I need a fairly robust software toolbox. Here’s a list of some of the software I use that make my job much easier. All of these are free, and many are open-source as well, which means they’ll run on almost any platform you use.
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Student use of Jing for Assessing the Web

An online technologies course we have in development includes a section where students are required to review web resources while recording their feedback and thoughts in real time.

Apple TVs in the Training Room or Classroom

When I moved into my new department, work had begun on two training rooms based on active learning models. These training rooms will work as test beds for how best to use instructional technology to enable active learning in more classrooms.

We want to make collaboration as easy as possible for staff and faculty who use our training areas. One of the most frequent questions I receive during iPad workshops is how to share the contents of an iPad’s screen with the entire classroom. Traditionally this has involved using a 30-pin or lightning to VGA/HDMI adapter, which in turn requires being plugged in/unplugged to a switch box at an instructor station, and leaves the instructor tethered to a single point in the classroom. Not exactly elegant.

The key feature the Apple TV brings to a training or classroom is AirPlay mirroring. This allows the users of recent models of iPads, iPhones and MacBooks to seamlessly share their screen with whatever device the AppleTV is attached to.

Our main training room consists of four monitors mounted on the wall next to a table with integrated HDMI and power outlets. We’re trying for a sleek and elegant look, so we decided to mount the Apple TVs behind the monitors, to keep them out of the way.

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We purchased several TotalMount kits from Amazon, admittedly because they were the cheapest mounting kits out there.. These are small plastic frames that add about a half-inch to the Apple TVs footprint, and can be hung from the mounting vents on the back of the TV, hung from the VESA mounting frame, or simply mounted to the wall. We ended up taping them to the VESA mounting brackets. We didn’t strictly need mounting kits, but in the event that an Apple TV has to be replaced, I think having a bracket we can slide it in our out of will be a nice time saver.

Because the Apple TVs were mounted behind the monitors, we could not consistently get them to acknowledge a signal from the remote. While we could pair each remote with an individual device, this still meant we had four additional pieces of hardware to keep track of and inevitably lose (Apple remotes are tiny!).

We will rarely need to use the remotes since primary use of the Apple TVs is as Airplay mirroring devices, and that is initiated at the iPad/MacBook side. Still, I wanted to be able to easily control the Apple TVs in case I need to make configuration changes in the future. Enter the Apple Remote app for iOS.

Apple’s Remote app allows you to control an Apple TV via your iOS device. The only requirement is that both the Apple TV and iOS device both be signed into the same iTunes Home Sharing account. We already have an AppleID we use for purchasing volume licensed apps from the App store, so I used this account for the Apple TVs and lab iPads.

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We can grab any of the iPads we keep in our area, and use the Remote app to control any of our Apple TVs. On-screen swipe features are used to navigate, and it even brings up a keyboard on the iPad when the Apple TV needs text input.

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The final step was making sure the Apple TVs could only be used by people in the training room. Since they are on a shared wireless VLAN, anybody using wireless on campus can see and choose the Apple TVs for Airplay output devices. The last thing I wanted was somebody on the other side of campus deciding to start blasting their favorite music through our TVs in the middle of the day.

Airplay can be locked down using a password in two methods. The first is a static password, which we could then post and give to people who needed to use an Apple TV. The solution I opted for, which felt more elegant, is to generate a 4-digit pin every time somebody attempts to connect to the Apple TV. The PIN displays on screen, and the user types it in at that time. No passwords to hand out, and no chance of the password leaking out to a user intent on causing chaos.

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If someone forgets to turn off AirPlay mirroring when they leave the room, you can hit menu on the Apple TV remote to end their AirPlay session.

When an HDMI input goes inactive our monitors switch back to whatever active device is plugged in. This means that when somebody who was attached to the monitor via a physical HDMI port (was using a Windows laptop) unplugs, the monitors will automatically switch back to the Apple TV. Depending on your use case, this could be a feature or a nuisance.

I’m happy with how the final result turned out. I can centrally control all of our Apple TVs from any iPad in our department, and connecting to them is as simple as a few taps on their screen.

What did I learn from the experience? The Apple TV really is a pretty seamless way to enable wireless screen sharing. The $99 price tag is reasonable for a handful of devices, and shouldn’t break the budget for most departments.

The elephant in the room is that it only works with Apple devices. I’d prefer a vendor-neutral solution, but there doesn’t seem to be one out there. In addition, the vast majority of tablets used by our faculty are iPads, so we opted to support what they already have rather than what we want them to get. Makes compliance much easier.

AirPlay compatibility for Windows and older Macs that don’t have it baked into the OS is also available via AirParrot. From what I’ve used of it, it works almost as well as native AirPlay support although it can cause a noticeable hit on CPU usage on older devices.