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Cool Tools for School

At the start of new semester, it's time to share three neat tools that might be useful for class projects.

September 3, 2015
 

Just in time for a new school year, I’m fighting off a tiresome bug that features a sore throat and a constant feeling that I should be taking a nap. Not good, when you’re starting a new semester. But I thought I’d share a few cool tools that I’ve been experimenting with lately. You might find them useful for classes or for sharing your own research.

Pressbooks is a Wordpress-based platform that takes in your writing (whether blog posts or other materials) and converts them into publication-ready documents in four formats: html, PDF, ePub, and mobi (the kind Amazon uses). You can try it for free and put out documents that carry a Pressbooks  watermark, or you can purchase an upgrade to produce files without the branding. (Usually, it’s $99 for all formats, $19 for ebooks only, but if you sign up for email alerts, you’ll get notices about frequent discounts.) The platform offers a wide variety of attractive style templates. It’s perfect for people like me who are not technologically savvy, but if you like messing around under the hood, there is an open source version available at Github. It’s being used by a number of publishers as well as individuals who want to self-publish or create an open access book. I can imagine could be really interesting to use in a course for compiling an anthology of student writing - or by a library offering publishing services for its campus. While the pricing posted on the site applies to single books, there are accounts available for publishers and academic institutions. 

Timeline.js is a program developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University with journalists in mind, but it’s a lovely (and very simple) way to develop a web-based timeline that can include text, photos, video, or sound recordings. If you can create a Google spreadsheet, you can make a  slick-looking timeline very quickly. The Knight Lab has several other neat tools for creating maps, adding audio to stories, and analyzing breaking news as it appears on Twitter. One problem I’ve run into with these tools is that they rely on JSON and don’t seem to be trusted by the current web browsers and sites that require SSL (secure sockets layer). I had to tell my browser that a Washington Post map was safe to view, and our campus website won’t allow embedded timelines. That’s my only complaint.

Finally, something I haven’t used much yet, but which I imagine could be really useful for close reading, analysis, or debate, is Hypothes.is, an annotation tool for web documents. I really like the fact that this project doesn’t rely on monetizing user data (what Shoshana Zuboff recently called “surveillance capitalism”), and it’s a non-profit that uses open standards and isn’t operating on magical venture capital dust like so many for-profit tech ventures. You can create an account (and don’t have to give away a lot of personal information to do so – all you need is an email address) and in quick order have the ability to highlight passages and add notes. I can imagine this being quite useful for a group of students digging into a web text, but one problem I have with it is that you have a choice of your annotations and highlights being public or private – you can’t have a private group, so far as I can tell. Still, since students don’t need to use their real names,  and a course tag can be added to comments to pull them all together, I may try it someday. There are more ideas for using it in the classroom at their blog.

Okay, that's it. I'm going to go take a nap.

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