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Sharing My Work: Teaching Paperless, Year 2

This was my second year teaching a “paperless” 300-level course on Nonprofit and Government Technology at Grand Valley State University. I used online tools for the process both years, although I modified both the tools set and approach the second year. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about the tools and process.

I used PBWorks (an online wiki tool) for the syllabus the first year. I also created specific pages for each class session: a page for January 18, another for January 25, etc. The second year, I put everything the students needed on a single Google Sites page with a custom course URL: Keeping all of the course reading assignments on a single public page seemed to work well. Most of my lectures were delivered with the aid of presentations I created and linked to with

I made two significant changes to the structure and content of the class the second year:
I narrowed the focused of each class session and significantly reduced the number of guest speakers. The narrowed focus, I hope, gave the students a better understanding of several of the core content areas. I plan to keep this approach in future years.

I’m still unsure how to best incorporate guest speakers..  There’s certainly value in exposing the students to multiple voices, but without a solid context for comprehension, I worry that guest speakers’ knowledge and expertise many not be well appreciated by the class. I’ll probably experiment with a few more guest speakers in the next iteration of the syllabus.

Eliminating virtual guest speakers also eliminated the use of Skype and Since the classroom I used didn’t have webcam capabilities that supported Skype, this did save me the hassle of setting up my laptop, MiFi and Logitech webcam for class sessions.

Student postings and bookmarking
Because I want students to experience reading and posting online, I required them to sign up with a Posterous account both years.  I added all of the students as contributors to the Posterous group I’d established.

The second year I also required a Diigo (social  bookmarking and web-based research tool) account, so students could see how an online research tool works. As with Posterous, I had the students join a Diigo group I’d setup. Requiring the students to bookmark three sites (with a comment on at least one of the booksmarks) each week using Diigo seemed useful.

The experience of setting up and configuring the accounts varies widely from student to student. Some students have their accounts setup and configured before I finish explaining how we’ll be using the tools in class. Other students don’t get their accounts setup properly until I walk through the setup with them individually after the second or third class session. Providing the students with specific setup instructions via a page on the class’ Google Site seemed to help.

While the quality of posts generally improved this year, it seems to me that the students are not formally taught standard practices regarding linking, quoting or referencing online content in blog posts. I’ll definitely be adding a course session focused on this next year.

I wish Posterous had a way to view only items posted by a individual group member: this would make grading much easier!

I used Google Forms to create exams both years. The exams were a combination of multiple choice and essays.  Google Forms works great for multiple choice questions, but is less than ideal for reading and grading essay responses.  Reading a multi-paragraph response in a single spreadsheet cell is not an ideal reading experience!

Student Projects
Both years, I have required students to complete projects that included content to be posted online and presented in class.  I’ve asked them to link to this content within the Posterous feed, both years, as well.

The students are generally familiar with creating presentations, but could benefit from a bit more guidance regarding effective slide creation and general public speaking practices.  I put together a very brief set of slides on this topic for the class this year, but I need to add this topic to the syllabus next year.

I also need to be more rigorous in my requirements for the presentation format and content.  Requiring a title page, prohibiting the use of video during the presentation unless created by the student, and dictating the tool to be used for creating the slides may help.  I may also require a written, online document in addition to presentation slides.

I tested using PollEverywhere to gather feedback from the students regarding their classmate’s presentations: asking them to rank the presentations occurring each session. This exposed the students to another useful tool. Next year, I may simply ask students to grade each presentation, rather than rank the presentation in comparison to peers.

Virtual Office Hours
Since I live about 2-1/2 hours away from campus, I also offered virtual office hours this year.  I set up a standing meeting using that students could join twice a week.  Only two students took advantage of this time.  Next year, I’ll offer office hours at just a few strategic points in the semester, not weekly.  I may also move one of the class sessions to a web meeting format, simply because I want the students to be familiar with web meeting tools.

Feedback?I’d welcome comments and suggestions on the syllabus, approach or tools. If you were a student in either year’s classes, I’d be especially interested in your thoughts!


Farewell to Good Hardware

I dropped off my custom-built Shuttle XPC SB52G2 at our local recycling center earlier this week.

Originally purchased in July 2003 for about $1,000, I used the system about three years as a file server running e-Smith, a customized Linux distribution. I re-purposed the system in 2006 to run Windows XP Home for my then 6 year old daughter.  I made several upgrades to the system:
– doubling the RAM to 2Gb,
– replacing the original two 80Gb hard drives with a single 500Gb drive,
– replacing the original CD-RW drive with a DVD-RW drive,
– and adding a video card (for gaming) that supported DVI-out. This is pretty much what I recommend to most nonprofit org I work with.  Spend around $1,000 for a new desktop, and plan for the system to last about 5 years.  Do upgrades all at once, usually around the mid-point of the system’s life. By late 2009, I replaced my daughter’s system with a newer Dell system running Windows 7 (costing about $1,000 again… but, compared to the original Shuttle configuration in 2003, having 6 times the RAM, more than 6 times the storage space, and with a quad core processor). According to my usual advice, I should have retired the 6-year Shuttle XPC at that time.  I didn’t. Instead, I tried to re-purpose it again as a Windows home media server.  It worked. Passably. If you had LOTS of patience. And if you were willing to pause and restart your movie a few times during playback to help the system get voice and video back in sync. After spending far too much time “tuning” the system settings, I finally listened to the advice I always give clients: “DON’T try to re-purpose or upgrade systems twice, and DON’T expect desktop computers to be usable after five years.” But… the system had run well with NO problems for so many years.  And it still worked, if a bit slowly. It seemed a shame to get rid of reliable, still usable hardware. But… Well… at some point, the speed and performance of newer systems wins out. Early this fall, I retired the Shuttle XPC to my home office. It sat unplugged in my office for almost four months before I recycled it. A new Zino HD — costing about $1,000, of course — now serves as my Windows home media center.  The new system has 8 times the RAM and more than 12 times the storage space of the original Shuttle configuration in 2003. And it supports new hardware, such as Blueray DVDs and HMDI. I’ll follow my own advice next time.  I’ll upgrade it when it is 2 or 3 years old, and recycle it when it turns 5. I encourage you to do the same.


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To the web… with the Cr-48

I’ve used Google’s Chrome Cr-48 notebook for the past week, and it handles almost everything I need a mobile computer to do. I’m really pleased with the device. With Chrome OS, Google seeks to move us from “device specific computing” to a “login to your account anywhere” world. With my own computer use, I’m already mostly there. Over the past few years, I’ve moved most of my life to the web: Google Apps for email and documents, Sliderocket for presentations, Dropbox and Evernote for files and information, DimDim / FuzeMeeting / / TokBox for web meetings, MindMeister for mind mapping, Freshbooks for billing, WordPress for website managment, Diigo for bookmarking, and so on. Even backup of local files goes to the web with If there’s a browser-based application for something, I’ve probably tried it. That said, in the past week I’ve learned a bit about the current quirks with the Cr-48.  But there are also a few tricks that make using the Cr-48 workable for me in daily use. 1. Quirk: Web apps should accept URLs. On Windows systems, I use Aviary to take screenshots of a website within the Chrome browser. I save the screenshot online with Aviary, then import the image into a Sliderocket presentation. With the Chrome browser on Windows 7, Sliderocket accepts an “http://” address and imports the image. With Chrome OS, Sliderocket only accepts a file stored locally.  Oh, the irony!  I’m sure this will be fixed, but it’s a good indicator that we’re still in the early days of so-called cloud computing. Trick: Save screenshots to the Cr-48 file system. Take a screen shot by going full-screen mode, waiting a second for the “Exit Full Screen” message to disappear, then clicking “Ctrl-next window” (the key to the left of the dim brightness key on the Cr-48). When importing the image, dig through the file system to chronos/user/Downloads/Screenshots. 2. Quirk: Printing from the Cr-48 requires Windows. Setting up printing from the Cr-48 required installing the developer track version of the Chrome browser on my Windows 7 desktop. Once configured, it worked well. Trick: Use a printer with an email address. My HP D110, part of the family of printers, has its own email address.  So I simply email items I want printed to it. This is also how I printed from my iOS devices before Apple released AirPrint. 3. Quirk: Web conferencing apps don’t recognize the webcam. I use web meeting tools a lot. I tested DimDim and TokBox, which both support video within Chrome on Windows.  Webcam video didn’t work in either DimDim or TokBox in Chrome on the Cr-48. Trick: Edit Adobe Flash settings. After digging around in various forums, I learned that there are some online Adobe Flash website privacy settings that can be edited. Who knew? I went to the Adobe Settings Manager site online, then changed the website privacy settings to “Always Allow” for and Web video worked! Long version of the link: 4. Quirk: Creating a local file on a device doesn’t mean the file will be accessible via Google Docs. This isn’t a Cr-48 quirk — it’s a human quirk: old habits die hard, even for devout beta testers like me.  I needed to write a script for the audio track of a training presentation I am developing.  I created the presentation in Sliderocket on my Cr-48.  I started writing the script using Pages on my iPad. The next day, without thinking, I pulled up Google Docs to edit the file. It took me about five minutes to figure out that the file was stuck on my iPad and not online. Trick: No more local files! I’m resolved to remove apps from my iOS and Windows devices that don’t sync to the web automatically — Dropbox and Evernote are OK; Microsoft Office by itself isn’t, but Office with Offisync or Google’s Cloud Connect are acceptable. (Split-screen browsing in Chrome OS would be nice. I know plugins to Chrome offer split-screen browsing, but this is the sort of thing that I think is optimally handled at the operating system level.) 5. Unsolved quirks: Scanning, iTunes and iOS, screen sharing. There are still a few issues I haven’t completely resolved with the Cr-48. The most important is scanning. I currently scan most documents to a PDF format in Evernote with a Fujitsu ScanSnap S300.  I’d like to be able to scan directly to Evernote without going through a local machine.  I think some Lexmark printers can do this, but I’m still researching this.  Any advice in the comments would be appreciated! Resolving the need for iTunes is more difficult.  I’m already using MP3Tunes to sync my music library, so I have access to my music from most web-connected devices.  The problem is that iTunes is the only reliable way I know of to update and backup iPhones and iPads. I know a solution is to move to Android devices and sync directly over the web. But I’m not quite ready to ditch my iPhone or iPad. I can see centralizing all iTunes syncing on one computer in the household, though. Finally, I haven’t found an easy-to-use web based way to provide remote support.  I’m a big fan of, which is the simplest way I’ve found to do screen sharing and remote control on Mac and Windows systems.  I can use on a Cr-48 to view and support someone else’s system, but I can’t use it to share my screen from the Cr-48: doing so requires running an executable file locally.  The same is true for screen sharing with tools such as DimDim or FuzeMeeting.  Any solutions that don’t require the sharer to install any code and work on the Cr-48? I absolutely love the Cr-48 and look forward to watching the OS evolve — and seeing it on even more impressive hardware in 2011.

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Tech Recommendations: 2010

As 2010 winds down, I thought I’d share the tech recommendations I most often give to nonprofit organizations w/fewer than 10 users. What recommendations or changes you advise?Items suitable for Tweeting, just for fun.

1. Get the fastest Internet connection you can afford. In recommended order: business class Ethernetcable (Docsis 3.0 modem), or DSL. #nptech2. Use wired connections where possible: a gigabit switch & cabling (Cat 5e or 6). Replacedesktops every 5 years, laptops every 3. #nptech3. Get a WiFi router with gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n & guest networks. Update router firmware. Configure w/WPA2 & OpenDNS for security. #nptech4. OS: Windows XP SP3 or 7 Pro. If Vista, upgrade to Windows 7 Pro from TechSoup.orgor Macs: OS X 10.5 or newer. #nptech5. Install all OS updates. Update other software w/Secunia online software inspector. UseMicrosoft Security Essentials anti-virus. #nptech6. Windows Firewall: on. Remove unused software. Install Chrome browser as default.CCleaner to clean file system & repair registry. #nptech7. Use Defraggler to reduce file fragmentation. Backup computers w/ Set up Facebook PageTwitter; manage w/HootSuite. #nptech8. Get for free hosting w/ & register your own domain name there ($10/year). Use Google Apps Education Edition for email. #nptech9. Backup social media & email w/Backupify. Install LogMeIn on desktops for remote access. Use for free 10-person web mtgs. #nptech10. Other tools: Salesforce-database, WordPress-website (at Dreamhost), sharing, Google Checkout or Paypal– donations. #nptech
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Presentations updated

I’m gradually updating the resources on this site, including posting new content. This site will serve as the new home for my presentations and resources, including my presentations on “Choosing a Database” and “Google Apps for your Nonprofit“. I’ve built both of these using entirely online tools. Working within Google’s Chrome browser, I take screen shots using, and insert the images into, a web-based presentation tool. I’ve enabled commenting on the slides: feel free to give me your thoughts as you browse through the slides! I’ve also moved all my bookmarks over to (from I can then group links into “lists” with Diigo. A list of Diigo list links can then be browsed as “web slides”, which enables you to quickly view the current versions of websites I’ve bookmarked. For example, view the Google Apps for your Nonprofit list as “web slides” here. Hope you find this information useful!

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