Web tools

At the 2006 E-fair in Cambridge this July a colleague and I kept some of the delegates amused by introducing them to some of the great free tools out there - most of which don't need anything other than an internet connection to work. Even those that do need a download or log-in aren't too awkward to install or use and your IT Services people shouldn't object. See them all at the web site we created for the day which looks like something that will become a permanent feature of one or other of my sites and which I'll try and update regularly with the things you tell me about. Here it is. Enjoy yourselves and maybe the students will too.

A great time to be in this business!

It really is all happening. The Holy Grail of anyone being able to publish stuff on the web just by typing on a page seems tantalisingly close. A whole raft of wonderful new web-based applications are being trialled and we get to use them for free. I didn't even get time to write about Google's Page Creator when along came Pageflakes and the cool Netvibes. Now I've discovered 9cays and, well, the whole web scene is changing. 9cays is all about communication: you send an e-mail to people and their replies get accumulated on a web page they can all access, with simple facilities for getting others involved, developing the strand and leaving it too. Forget the distribution list or the cumbersome ones someone else has to set up for you via JISC or whoever - this one you can just start.

Pageflakes and Netvibes are remarkably similarly remarkable. One is now my home page - they're that good. Again, quite free. You can create a page that contains the panels of your choosing, from news feeds, feeds from your own blog, other web pages of your choice or a range of smart tools like clocks, searches and more. You can move panels around and, and this is the bit that makes them special, add your own text to as many panels as you like too. Pageflakes has the edge on content and the fact that you can have several pages comprising a pretty useful 'site'-ful but Netvibes has the better design and functionality in my view.

Google Page Creator basically does just that - provides you with areas in which you add your content, including images, then select from a variety of templates and when you hit the publish button you have a web address and a pretty decent looking site.

All these allow the inclusion of a nice facility to show your Flickr images or fine Flickr badges featuring your or someone else'd collections. . . oh, didn't I mention Flickr?

Lastly, for probably not very long, go to Wink and tag these and a whole lot of other pages you find that suit a particular need and they'll get stored in your own area for quick future reference or, indeed, as a selection for others to view, with a selection of similar sites, tagged by others via Wink, which have similar content but you perhaps missed.

OK, so it wasn't lastly . . . I forgot box.net where anything that's still what is rapidly becoming an 'old-fashioned document and needs to be stored somewhere, can be stored and accessed by whoever you care to give access to - and none of the processes require anything other than a reasonable recent computer and common sense.

Some tools to try

If you haven't spotted them in the General Learning resources links then do have a look at a couple of new tools I am developing. Using good old Excel97 - and I must try an Oo version - so pretty accessible I hope, you'll find an automatic scheme of work and lesson plan tool and an ICT skills survey tool. The latter is meant to help me discover what training people at my College may need and is concerned mostly with just the basics that I reckon tutors should indicate that they are at least aware of and can see a use for. However, with some tweaking you may be able to apply some or all for another purpose and, of course, I'm sure the smart guys out there will be able to make something far less clunky! See them here.

Now, where was I?

In case you forget where you should be when, and even why, here are a couple of sites that can help: planzo and meet-o-matic. Meet-o-matic is great for meetings when you are trying to get a group of people to agree a date. It doesn't look very smart but it does work. I've been using it for a couple of years but may not need it now that I've found Planzo. Now this looks awful but you can make it look better quite easily by choosing some better colour combinations than any of the standard sets offered, and it is very very smart in action. If it weren't for all the others sending you Outlook tasks and meeting requests, you could easily do without Outlook now and, of course, as very few of us have Outlook out of the office anyway, it may just be time to try and persuade colleagues to change to Planzo instead. Take a look (and don't get put off by the ghastly colours - you really can improve them later!) It comes from the Frappr stable (where you can see photos and profils of many of the Further Education ILT Champs and other groups) and is also, like most things I recommend, quite free.

Write on-line

I'm finding that I use traditional MS Office products far less often than I used to. If I want to show someone some text then it just seems a lot simpler to throw it onto a web page and send them the link. I've mentioned blogs before and they provide a simple way for anyone with internet access to do the same without having to know anything about web authoring. Now it's getting even easier with the remarkable on-line word processor available from writely.com - and currently free. (This is still under development but seems perfectctly workable to me and I note that they say that they intend to keep a basic version, hopefully enough for most of our requirements, free in future too.) So, if you want to make a quick summary of a meeting, collaborate with colleagues on a document or just make a few notes for yourself using someone's machine, give this a try.


Wonderful! Just what we need. For about a year I have been itching to try this out and hearing good reviews from colleagues. The trouble was that I'd thought it was something super-techy and, whilst I think I can use computers effectively, I don't have much of a clue as to what goes on inside or how programmes actually work. A student sorted out the installation for me in an hour or two and since then I've hardly been able to tear myself away from it. Oh, what's moodle? you ask. Sorry. It's a free, open source, programme that creates the structure for a web site that can contain our course materials. In fact, it could contain anything but because it has standard words like 'course', 'resource', 'student' etc. it tends to suit educational use best. And people should be able to add their courses and materials to it without having to learn lots of special skills. That will make my job a lot easier. There'll be more news about this, I'm sure, and you can check out my progress at this link - the ILT ideas course is currently open to guest access.

Also some beginners' notes now available on the notes page.

Peter's Pond

Here's something completely different! A good quality camera sending a live video stream of activity at a pretty popular refreshment pool for wild animals in Namibia. Best time to view seems to be early morning but there's nearly always something to see. With live sound too, it's quite amazing and a timely reminder that not everything goes at the pace of our lives here. You don't need to teach Geography to use this in a lesson - I'll find a way to include it in all of mine at some point or another.

Link to National Geographic Live Feed

Google Desktop2

I wouldn't be surprised if several of you haven't yet managed to get as far as reading about Google Desktop Search amongst my ramblings. Well, never mind because they've now produced a new version which includes a Sidebar from which you can access all sorts of things as well as being regularly distracted from whetevr you're supposed to be doing.

See it at this link and wonder, like me, just how long such developments can remain free. Amazing.

vle yes, VLE no.

This isn't going to make me popular with several good friends and colleagues. I'm a big fan of virtual learning environments and an even bigger advocate for the idea of managed learning environments, where basically one huge database in the background feeds staff and students what they need to do their jobs effectively and achieve success respectively in a nice, easy-to-access-and-use place we can all use from our desktops, wherever and whenever we wish.

What I'm rapidly going off, however, are Blackboards, WebCTs and the like. The places where these VLEs and MLEs are working well are those where really big commitment of funds have been made and a team of dedicated and enthusiastic staff have got them up and running, trained staff and regularly update and maintain the systems. Great, but not only are they the profitable institutions that can afford it - they are also the ones now winning most of the bids for increasingly scarce funding for development, the Centres of Vocational Excellence, the Beacon Colleges and well-supported neighbours of well-staffed and stocked HE institutions. With a bit of thought and smart programming and design, they could probably have created their own vles and mles anyway by now. Or contributed more to the development of an open source option instead of the pockets of VLE company directors.

In the smaller, less income-rich, institutions it can be a stuggle to find the five figure sums each year that VLE software costs before budgeting for staff to make it work. Their staff are as excellent as their bigger brothers' but usually spread rather more thinly and for "ILT Team" read "Co-ordinator + as many volunteers as he or she can persuade to help in their spare time". They need a vle just as much as anyone else but I don't now think that a VLE is the answer.

I have been really impressed by one small English FE college's approach. They decided some years ago to ignore the rush to buy Blackboard or whatever with the ILT funds the LSC dished out and to create their own. One smart ex-student and a couple of staff familiar with the organisations' systems and management developed something that did exactly what staff and students wanted there. Course details and materials are on-line. Standard reports can be produced automatically so that staff are not forever re-typing names and numbers. Everything that should be linked together is linked together and because it is easy for staff to keep it up-to-date it works. There is now a growing Moodle community too. Moodle is an open source vle which is gaining sufficient respectability to be integrated with LAMS which is the base vle provided free for schools. I'm not as familiar with Moodle as I ought to be but I predict that it may not be long before either Moodle or a variation on the theme, (dare I suggest, Moogle??!!) which is really FE user-friendly and doesn't appear a scary option to the less-informed makes some giant strides in the sector. All it would take would be some of the big boys to make a bit of an effort put their next year's VLE subscriptions into something we can all share.

All this has come to mind as a result of my own experience in the last year. My college is one of those small institutions achieving excellence against all odds - but having to watch every penny it spends. We bought WebCT in November 2004. We ran training programmes for staff and identified people who would be able to get to grips with it fairly quickly and hoped that once their courses started going on-line others would be inspired to follow. I translated the confusing manuals into plain English and started to try and transfer my own intranet resources to it. Slowly it began to dawn on me that it was going to be quite a struggle. I'd always considered Dreamweaver a difficult programme to get to grips with but creating pages, menus and links was a breeze compared to the work required in WebCT. Time and again I got stuck and had to spend hours figuring out how to do something other than by writing csv code. More and more I realised that if I was having trouble then most colleagues wouldn't stand a chance. As it happened few tried. Those that did soon fell at the bit where you allocate students to courses. Even if they managed that, the fact that they really needed html pages for their schemes of work, lesson plans and handouts drew them to a grinding halt. There was the several thousand pound-a-year add-in that would do the conversion for them but we hadn't got that. Even if we had I'm not sure it would have made much difference to the take-up. I offered to convert anyone's documents and things myself, using traditional web design tools and to teach anyone interested so that they could do it themselves. Then, Big Realisation 2, it occurred to me that if I could make the process of creating web pages pretty straightforward for staff then they could simply publish them on our intranet which was easy to access and do almost what anybody wanted with rather than operate within the straightjacket of WebCT coding.

So, that was it. We developed our staff and student intranets, took on an ex-student, and are currently getting on much better. We haven't got any integration with our administrative system but my guess is that there'll be some Government action on that front before long we can take advantage of. If not, I shall use my best endeavours to push them to help and call in the other college I mentioned above to share their system with us. The only things that we won't be able to do when we wave goodbye to our VLE will be tracking individual students' access to resources and making NLN Learning Materials more readily available across college. We can live without the former, I believe, and the latter . . well, that's another story I shall return to another day.

So, if you're about to renew your VLE, take a deep breath and bravely think the unthinkable . . . could you spend that cash in a way that might benefit the rest of us a little more?

OpenOffice On Our Desktops?

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) is expected to encourage the use of open source software in schools in a report to be published next month. more ^

Now you can sort out those folders!

Did you know that Windows Explorer has a method for sorting files into smaller groups? For example, when icons are arranged by Name, you can choose to sort files into separate alphabetical groups. ^

To experiment with this feature:

1. Right-click Start and then click Explore.
2. Navigate to a folder containing lots of files.
3. Right-click on a space in the right-hand pane of Windows Explorer.
4. Click Arrange Icons By > Name and then tick Show In Groups. The files will now be displayed in separate alphabetical groups.
5. Right-click on a space in the right-hand pane of Windows Explorer and then click Arrange Icons By > Size (leaving Show In Groups ticked). The files will now be displayed in size order, with
headings such as "tiny", "medium", "large" etc.
6. Now, try the same thing for the icon arrangement options: Type
and Modified. ^

Dasher: type without a keyboard!

You have to see this to believe it. A tiny little programme developed by Cambridge University. The Dasher project is supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, being initially designed to enable people who can't use keyboards to enter text on a screen but which will give you lots of training ideas across curriculum. Get the tiny programme here. ^

mini might make a big difference

Once you were either a PC person or a Mac person. Simple. And changing from one to the other was not really a realistic proposition as you'd need a new mouse and other bits. And no-one would have both at a grand or so each. £339 buys you the macmini. It's brilliantly designed, genuinely small, makes my Shuttle look enormous but is as fully featured as most 'normal' pcs, with possibly even more software (that you'll actually want to use). The best bit is that it'll work with your monitor, keyboard and, yes, the two-button, scrolling mouse. I reckon this really will make a big difference. People will be very, very tempted across a much wider market than before.

Viruses back with avengeance!

You cannot help but have noticed all those e-mails declaring that your password is invalid or a message was undeliverable etc etc - often from vaguely recognisable sites. Don't open them! If your virus software is bang up-to-date you should be OK but if you do get caught there are now some useful tools on the links page + more details about today's latest threats to your PC.

Free Google and Microsoft goodies

Google has expanded its activities amazingly and their Picassa image catalogue is remarkably well designed. Their Blogger web log software enables anyone to create a smart-looking web presence in minutes and the Google Desktop beats Windows Search hands down. Google Earth is just remarkable.

See the whole Google range here

There are also several very interesting add-ins for Windows XP in the new Powertoys section.

None of these appear to be widely promoted - so grab them while you can. And if you have students, tell them before they tell you!

Where have my e-mail pictures gone?

If you have downloaded Windows XP Service Pack 2- and you really should (the security benefits of the update are many despite the problems and glitches you may've heard about) - and use Outlook Express then you'll find that the new default setting blocks images in e-mail. Now that's probably not a bad idea if junk is still getting through to your Inbox and there are children around but if you've managed to regain some control over things, with help from Mcafee and friends, and find this annoying you can change this.

To view images on a message by message basis just click on Blocked images in the View menu. You probably knew that. To make this the default setting you need to click on the Tools menu and select options. In the pane that opens click on the Security tab and then remove the tick under Download images.


The Learning & Skills Development Agency have some interesting ideas about providing help for FE staff at all levels to assess where they're at in the field of e-learning and how to develop skills and put them into practice. My role with LSDA has been extended and I shall be very much involved in developing these new tools, working with colleagues in LSDA's Learning Technologies.

Q projects 2006 success

A total of 10 institutions in the Eastern Region, (that's England so visitors from elsewhere should scroll on for something more interesting) have been offered funds for small projects related to staff development with e-learning, following a record number of applications in June. Congratulations if you're at one of those colleges - including my own for the production of some sensible guidance for using graphs and charts, illustrating figures instead of merely pumping out tables and getting away from the boring Microsoft defaults - and sorry if you didn't get accepted this year. Hope to meet the people running the new projects soon.

Web design for normal people

At last there's a user-friendly and reasonably priced alternative to Dreamweaver. A review of the new Serif Web Plus 9 will be available soon. In the meantime, this link will take you to some pages that took about an hour to create and publish.

Bye bye blackboard?

In a recent article I cheerfully waved farewell to that annoying thing called a floppy disk and now DfES is proposing that all schools chuck out their blackboards and replace them with electronic whiteboards. Every new classroom, they suggests, should have one, maybe more than one. The college where I spend most of my paid time got rid of theirs ages ago, and not just because it was politically correct (remember all the whingeing about reference to 'black'boards!) nor because the squeak of chalk put all our remaining teeth on edge. The new whiteboards were simply a lot better all round. Clearer, quieter and, unless O'Donnell had used the permanent marker, easier to clean. We've had four new electronic things for a while now and they look lovely, even smart, but that's partly because no-one's actually using them very often. You might like him to consider a few things before screwing them up in the schools.

To use a simple back or white board, tutors can just wander in the the room and start scribbling. If breakfast took a bit longer than they expected or that other red sock took some finding and their arrival was a touch breathless - no worries - whip out the pen and start. Not quite that simple with the electronic variety. Even assuming the last user left the remote to switch on the projector in a sensible place and the pens are where they should be, the very fact that it's an Electronic Whiteboard which Sings, Dances and Plays Budweiser Themes means that class 3A expect, along with the rest of England, that the tutor performs with it. Not just writes on it, even in four colours. It can do more - they know, because Miss Cunningham-Forbes produced the most amazing display on her laptop and that just emphasises the lack of confidence or imagination of others.

So, tutors who intend using these things need to prepare a lot more, and to do so in what may to many still be quite demanding technical ways when they've previously just used basic Powerpoint at best. They need to book a laptop, collect it, carry it up to the room and plug it all in. They need to figure out how to get their documents from wherever they prepared them to the laptop. These are people who probably think a USB Drive is something you do in America when you want to watch a second-rate movie and even if they have some Wanadoo or Tiscali free web space on their new broadband service at home they haven't the first clue as to how to do anything with it.

The one or two - and it is the one or two - who do arrive ready for the new technology still worry about whether it will all actually work on the day and the number of times I'm hearing quite professionally competent people prefix even fairly basic presentations with something along the lines of "I do hope this is going to work . . ." is increasing exponentially. (The others may not say it but their body language says it.) So let me introduce you to the Two Bums: that's what more and more of our students will be observing as tutors, still maintaining their traditional front of the class presence, of course, and a colleague or technician bend over to examine to rear end of their equipment and plug leads in for several minutes while the class tries to detect a VPL or wonder what that mark is.

Good laptops and projectors for staff should take first priority - staff can get used to using them at home and interactive elements can be introduced using Voting Systems and other new techniques, So, if someone suggests a raft of expensive new gear before getting you really well trained in the basics, someone ask him about the Two Bums, please.

What's yours called?

My college will soon be launching a Virtual Learning Environment upon their unsuspecting staff and students. Ridiculously expensive software will make it a bit easier for staff to throw useful material onto students desktops and, if we're lucky, provide both with access to a good range of additional resources for teaching and learning which would previously have required those huge piles of photocopies handouts, notes and assignment sheets. All this stuff will be stored on something pretty much like a web site. People will need to get at it efficiently and to be able to talk about it in plain English if it is going to be effective. Like the best sites, this means a fairly snappy address that can be typed into a browser and broadcast in various media without confusion. Already, expressions such as "we can put that on the VLE" are circulating and being immediately followed by the query: "What's VLE?" OK, so staff will eventually get the idea but it would be nice to minimise the jargon and this seems a good place to start. If the 'site' is called fred and fred.com gets you to the front page there's hope. If it's webdot somecollegeabbreviation dash or line dot odd suffix then we're in trouble.

So we need a name. A simple name which has some sort of association with what the whole shooting match is all about and which is available as a domain name followed by one of the simple suffixes like .net or .com, possibly .info I suppose but I'm not sure about that. I came up with the idea of dcvle.net but whilst it rolls along quite nicely I'm having doubts. DC is generally understood to be the college but why should I foist the VLE jargon on people? I moan like hell at others who do that and here am I about to do the same! Being DC prevents some bright ideas like dconline which sounds more like a religious railway or a helpline for the mafia. When something occurs to me you'll see it here first.

Recent articles:

Access my earlier ramblings here and please send your own comments, suggestions or whatever.

Writeback to views@ahi2000.com .

Village life!
Out of the the bedroom . . .
Bye bye floppy
Hello USB drives
The broader picture
Office 2003?
Long life?
How Can I Do It?
Purple folders
Another forum
1990 and all that . . .
48 hrs notice
nln round three
Specialist help


Quick notes

New RSS feed + notes

A few short tips and ideas are also included on the new Quicknotes page.


Write on-line
Peter's Pond
Google Desktop2
vle yes, VLE no.

OpenOffice On Our Desktops?

Now you can sort out those folders!
Dasher: type without a keyboard!
mini might make a big difference
Viruses back with avengeance!
Free Google and Microsoft goodies
Where have my e-mail pictures gone?
Q projects 2006 success
Web design for normal people
Bye bye blackboard?
What's yours called?
Recent articles


Anything I write here represents my personal opinions at the time of writing and is not intended to reflect the policy or views of any institution or organisation with whom I have a connection.

© Andrew Hill. All rights reserved but I'd be delighted to discuss terms.

page updated 18 February, 2007