Thursday, August 18, 2011

New semester perks: A few sites to explore

One way to build up energy for a new semester is to try something new. Whether inside the classroom or not, this little technique of simply trying something new can add a spark of excitement to the pre-semester preparations. Here are a few sites and ideas that might help you perk up with new possibilities:

In-class options:
1. Wordle. I love this tool for my classes and even club activities on campus. Create a word cloud to help students explore word choice, meaning, power of words, appropriateness to audience, or to just have fun analyzing different texts. More frequently used words are made larger, bolder, and less frequently used words are minimized -- pictorially interesting, my students love doing this. Here's a wordle created using the words from the Communication & Higher Education blog:
Wordle: Higher Ed and Communication

2. allows you to detail how mind mapping can work. This is great for classes requiring students to brainstorm and constructively organize any topic for a larger project. It is fairly intuitive to use and students can learn about coordinating and subordinating ideas easily. Here is a sample:

3. Using audio or video feedback for students. I prefer Audacity for my audio comments. It is intuitive to use and free. Simply use a microphone (built in to most laptops or buy an external mic) and record messages for your students. I love doing this for my online course announcements periodically throughout the semester and it always gets rave reviews in the end-of-semester evaluations. (Read my earlier discussion of Audacity). This works for student projects, wikis, etc. too. They love incorporating their own voices.

4. Usher in the Social Media. Not a surprise for those who regularly read this blog, the use of Social Media in class activities can really help engage students. Use a class wiki (our LMS, BlackBoard has a tool built right in for this, but you can also use WikiSpaces or other free options). Send them on a Twitter-hunt or have students analyze media messages from different companies/organizations/celebrities/politicians or explore "trending" topics for discussion in class. Engage their understanding of characters by developing mock Facebook or LinkedIn pages, use Skype to meet up with guest speakers or for online students, have submissions of assignments shared via YouTube or set up and use a  Vimeo group. Have students craft and share a Diigo site housing information on a project. Use GoogleSites to help students craft portfolio pages. Enhance group or individual presentations with Prezi. Consider options for easy communication tools so students find you accessible and your work-load is easy to manage (I use Yahoo IM as a virtual option for office hours). Here's the best part: Most of these are FREE.

What next? Here's the process I use. Look at your assignments--really look at them. Can they be updated or enhanced by adding something new? (Remember, don't just add it to add it...make sure any addition is purposeful and enhances the pedagogy). My activity for "topic analysis" in the basic public speaking course may include a link to, my assignment on "ethos" will involve a Twitter exploration of students' favorite musicians, actors, politicians and examples of how that person may create and lose ethos with a diverse audience by analyzing Tweets, my study session will have an option to IM or Tweet any questions, my exploration of persuasive fallacies will have video examples from movies and politicians, my class wiki project will require us of audio and video components. Ask others for input (and ask your students!) if you get stuck in a rut with activities.

General options to perk up your energy (outside of the classroom):
1. Google help: Explore cleaning up email and planning for its effective use, YouTube, and general daily use of Google-related items in this article.

2. Scan and save documents on an external hard drive (keep in a secure location) and then shred/toss old files. This is a great tip for those feeling overwhelmed by papers, or piles of files.

3. Organize it! I use a daily task list and calendar that helps me to prioritize my tasks and work through big projects. Lately, this means I check in with large projects regularly and update the tasks to stay on time. This keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. I create a project chart (in excel) to help me each semester. Here is my grid from this past Spring semester:
My "semester grid" that focuses my work and goals

After a semester ends (and periodically throughout the semester), I work on the next term's grid of activities to constantly keep forward motion and see balance of research/teaching/grants so I know what I need to emphasize in future terms.  This also helps me to realize which projects I tend to push on the "back burner" and which ones rise to the front. I notice I plan better each semester and each semester I learn something about myself. My calendar and task list are drawn from this grid so large projects (should) get tackled on time. This doesn't always work (as you can see, our SACS visit and QEP requirements (I served on several committees related to these endeavors that involved extensive meetings and time), derailed a few projects in Spring. Those items were moved to Summer and/or Fall and the process begins again.

Hopefully, your semester is an exciting one. If you are feeling the energy depleting, though, consider a few tools and techniques to help both in and out of the classroom.

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