Class Badges…amped up versions of a gold star

Name: Class Badges
Cost : Free
Type : Internet tool
Rating : 4/5

Class Badges LogoWe all like gold stars. Even adults. Admit it. It’s what makes apps like Angry Birds and Candy Crush timeless….even if we finish all the available levels, we can go back and try for three star finishes. What if our work or schoolwork could still earn us gold stars? It might just be the pat on the back that gets us through the day (or an hour of a tough day). A colleague suggested creating badges instead of gold stars, since the badges can be tailored for specific accomplishments. I like the simplicity of gold stars, but badges are more creative and on target. I was a Girl Scout, so I can appreciate collecting a variety of badges to represent smaller accomplishments. Also, badging is/was a popular trend in education. The tool Class Badges allows me to easily create badges with their stock icons or search public domain graphics to make badges with. Yes, I can use a photo editing tool to make my own, but I’d never be able to keep up with writing blog posts if I was that thorough.

Warning….so, at this point, I should reveal that I do not use this tool as it was intended. I’m supposed to be assigning badges within the tool so that students receive the badges only within the badge website. But, I don’t want my students to leave the classroom to review badges, so I take a screen shot (with Jing) of my completed badge and attach it to my response in the classroom.

Class Badges Workspace 1

This is what you’ll see after creating a few badges. You can award the badges from here, along with editing them.

Goal: Give visual support to students in an online classroom setting with more than my generic gold star JPG (created in Word)

Benefits:

  • There is a tutorial, though the process is not difficult to figure out on your own.
  • Easy to use tool, for the most part (see Drawbacks). I created a half-dozen badges quickly, and only stopped because I ran out of feedback worthy of a badge.
  • Access to public domain or stock graphics, though I didn’t really find what I was looking for through the public domain options

Drawbacks:

  • Cannot download graphic file of badge and text
  • Requires login…okay, that’s not a big deal, but it’s just another place for my email and a password
  • The search function can be a bit quirky. It wants to match the word as you type, which may cause confusion while typing. The keyword search results list is pretty limited.

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Wordle…building clouds with meaning

Name: Wordle
Cost: Free
Type: Internet tool
Rating: 4/5

Wordle LogoI like text. Not necessarily “texting,” but text….words represented with interesting fonts, colors, and styles. I am one of those people who can spend 30 minutes trying a variety of fonts in PowerPoint or Word before finally choosing a font that is both readable and interesting, unless it’s my dissertation, and then it’s boring Times New Roman. When the “word cloud” idea became a graphic trend several years ago, I would actually spend a significant amount of time creating my own by selecting each word, applying a different font, and then turning the word so that it’d be horizontal or vertical. Fortunately, a smart person created a free tool so that I can reclaim some of that potentially wasted time–Wordle. Note: I suspect the word-cloud trend isn’t as popular, but I think word clouds are like Converse…never out of style, but not entirely appropriate for every situation.

View of Wordle workspace

This is what the workspace looks like before adding text, which just shows up as text until you create the cloud.

Goal: Create a graphic that represents key words or concepts

Benefits:

  • Graphic can be saved as a .png file (with button on the screen). I also use Jing to capture it if the button is being quirky (…it says it saves the file, but doesn’t sometimes).
  • The Advanced tab allows you to have more control over the size of the words. Before finding this feature, I just added the word a dozen times to my list of words in order to get it to appear bigger than others. Giving numerical weight to words is significantly easier.
  • Easily paste text into the tool and create a word cloud
  • modify the font size, color, and layout, though each modification reorders the text in the cloud.

Drawbacks:

  • (Not the tool’s fault) Some people don’t respond well to the chaos of a word cloud. Students with ADHD have reported they don’t like the word cloud approach. Journalists have also concluded that word clouds should be abandoned. I still think they’re interesting to look at, but I’m a word-geek.
  • When you change the font color (or other characteristic), the words reorganize randomly again.
  • You need to “activate” Java every time you want to use the tool (in Firefox). Sometimes, you need to activate Java a few times and hope it does not freeze your screen or kill your Firefox sessions.

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Random Tip #1: Lynda.com access

Lynda logoThis isn’t a technology review post, but rather just a random tip about technology. Lynda.com is a great website for tutorials on popular software (and other technologies, skills, and concepts), but the free videos are often limited. I actually avoided this website until recently because I didn’t care for getting invested in a course just for it to end (with a prompt to pay for access). But, I was recently enlightened that my local public library has an account with Lynda.com so that my library card and PIN serves gets me into the pay version of the site. My property taxes at work! It’s really exciting, actually, to be able to watch my property taxes as I view the 3.5 hour Photoshop course. Not all the videos are quality or insightful, but the site certainly provides many quality videos beyond what you can dig up on YouTube.

So, check to see if your library or other resource (e.g., organization, school, workplace) subscribe to Lynda.com. If not, perhaps you may want to ever-so-politely ask your head librarian if that can be a possibility in the near future.

Create a Graph….avoiding my complicated relationship with Excel

Create a Graph
Cost: Free
Type: Internet tool
Rating: 4/5

Create a Graph LogoOh, Excel….we’ve had a long and rocky relationship. We became close, really close, many years ago with my first job that often was glorified data entry. The department didn’t want to invest the money in hiring someone to build an actual database for information, so we used hundreds of Excel pages to store thousands of cells of information. Nonetheless, your clean lines and basic structure appeal to my straight-laced aesthetic. All that and you can make graphs and charts, too. But, that’s where we get complicated….figuring out which rows represent which part of my future graph compels me to invest more time in our relationship than I want to spare. Alas, I have found an Internet tool that does the work for me and produces a basic looking pie chart. Don’t worry Excel, my relationship with Create a Graph means nothing (except when I just need to make a pie chart without much thought). But, Excel, please don’t ask what I’ve been doing with Google Sheets lately.

Goal: Create a pie chart without Word or Excel because this software can sometimes just overwhelm me with options or frustrate me when I’m not patient enough to use it correctly.

Create a Graph start page

This is the view that you start with, where you can choose the type of graph to create.

Benefits:

  • You can work through each tab of options quickly since there are defaults options already selected. It has fewer “clicks” than the tool in Word, though it’s essentially the same, but a generic version.
  • I can download a version of the graphic, or email it as HTML or text.
  • It’s an internet tool that is easy to use by plugging in values and allowing it to generate the corresponding chart.
  • There is a tutorial and examples, though I didn’t explore them because it all seemed self explanatory.

Drawbacks:

  • It is not very fancy output, especially with the other chart options (see sample below).
  • The black lines look fairly “pixelated,” but you can choose a 3D version that does not use black lines as dividers.

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Jing….bringing light to my computer screen

Name: Jing
Cost: Free
Type: Download
Rating: 5/5 (static screen capture); 2/5 (video screen capture)

jing logo

Do you remember Ctrl+Prt Scr? Or, Alt+Prt Scr? Those were the only options to capture still images of computer screen views in the “early” days. [Note: the early days are probably more like the middle days, since if you wanted a screen shot for the early early days, then you’d have to use a camera and get the photos developed so that you could cut and glue them into the document prior to copying them for distribution. We’ve come a long way.] While the Ctrl or Alt methods are sometimes effective, they often captured way more of your screen than needed (e.g., desktop photo of you at the beach or desktop icons for solitaire, spider, and freecell). For those with patience, Paint could be used to crop the graphic, but most folks just plopped the full graphic into a document without editing. Half the Word document page was useless graphic, especially if the font was too small to actually read. The Jing “sun” brought light into the darkness and gave us the ability to only capture the relevant part of our computer screen. What’s more, Jing gives us audio/video recording abilities to show and tell our audience where to click (rather than putting arrows on the screen capture graphic). Alas, Jing has saved us all from awful screen captures.

My Goal: Capture my computer screen without the need to edit the graphic

Jing Sun

What the Jing Sun looks like on the desktop (not much to look at)

Benefits:

  • It’s FREE! You download it to your computer so that it’s available to use without Internet access. The Jing “sun” is always visible on my desktop, so I can hover over it to select my option and then click the area to capture.
  • Some users find the five-minute video restriction of the free version to be a benefit as it compels the user to keep the information brief.
  • It saves a copy of the capture to your Screencast account, though I just use the version I’ve stored locally. You can share this account with other users so they can access the saved videos or graphics. I don’t think they need an account, but you will; and, there is a size limit on how much can be stored for free.

Drawbacks:

  • The quality of the video screen capture is less than ideal if the user needs to read the text on the screen. The text is a little blurry. The video quality, though, is often better than other free screen capture tools I’ve tried. I don’t have any quality issue with static screen capture.
  • The screen capture video format does not work with typical video players/editors, as it saves the file as SWF (Adobe Flash Player). If you have Camtasia, then you can edit the files, though if you have Camtasia, then you’re probably using Camtasia’s screen record feature that yields a better quality video. The preferred viewing method of Jing videos is through the Screencast.com website, where your videos and graphics are automatically stored.
  • Sometimes the Jing “sun” is quirky, where it disappears or doesn’t respond to clicking. I can either shutdown Jing, or use the Jing button found in my “hidden icons” tab of the Windows toolbar. The quirkiness is not often and not generally a major issue.
  • Like most screen capture software, you can’t freeze dropdown menus during the capture process.

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CoolText….letting me pretend I’m a cool graphic designer

Name: CoolText
Cost: Free 
Type: Internet tool
Rating: 2/5
CoolText Logo

I wish I could be a graphic designer when I grow up. I would have brilliant ideas of forming text/graphics that look like logos or clipart. Well, I have the ideas, but just not the ability to create the graphics. I can fiddle around with Word Art in Word, but still come up with something that looks like what 10 thousand other Word users have created and added to their fliers for a bake sale or lost pet. CoolText is a tool that lets me pretend I’m a graphic designer, without further time in school (thankfully!).

Goal: Create eye-catching text to emphasize a key point in a presentation, going beyond the capabilities of Word’s Word Art, which is limited and cumbersome.

Benefits:

  • Free to use, without downloading any software, and I didn’t need to create an account in order to design and download my first image. But to save the HTML code, an account was required
  • A variety of preset color and highlight options for each font style, and you can add a symbol for further visual interest
  • The background is transparent (one of the “save as” options), so it looks more professional than having the white or black background when pasting into a PowerPoint slide or Word doc

Drawbacks:

  • Some of the font choices are not clearly readable, though they are creative. The message might be lost in the interpretation of each letter if the message is a phrase or sentence. (As a technical writer, I always have issues with readability and accessibility.)
  • The site is very quirky with Firefox. The preview would not load, and when adding a symbol, several were added when I only selected one. IE was better.
  • “Download Image” gives an error message. I needed to go to HTML code, log in, agree to terms, and then right click on the image (or go to provided URL to see the image)
  • Ads are not just distracting, but seem to make Firefox freeze while trying to create the logo.

 

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PicMonkey…yes, good for monkeying around with photos

Name: PicMonkey
Cost: Free (mostly)
Type: Internet tool
Rating: 4/5
PicMonkey logo
I should be writing my dissertation or lecture content, but instead I want to edit my photos. I almost feel like I’m not hijacking my writing efforts if the photo edits are done quickly in an Internet browser because I technically still have Word open and active. PicMonkey was suggested by a student as a tool to quickly create a blog banner graphic. Although I didn’t want to create a banner graphic, I did play around with the Internet tool and found that it was quite easy to use. Like, really easy to use. You can quickly apply textures or touch-up portraits, or create collages with multiple photos.
My Goal: Modify personal photos without feeling the guilt associated with opening Photoshop/GIMP when I should be working on the stuff  relevant to my dissertation efforts.
Benefits
  • Tools are easy to identify with icon/text provided.
  • Pop-up guides appear when you first use a tool that has multiple features.
  • Tutorials are available.
  • No registration for free version….just upload your photo and start working in it.
Drawbacks:
  • As an Internet tool, it is unstable. I’ve had issues with Firefox freezing and crashing when trying to save/download a final version of the photo.
  • There are flashing ads on the screen, which can be distracting if working on a photo for a while. (Pay version is ad-free.)
  • The really cool options are not free (though there is a free trial). Any tool with the crown watermark in the left bottom corner is not free.
  • No mobile app. (Actually, not a big deal for me. And, they say they’re working on a mobile version.)

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