This is Why I love the Internet

I love the Internet. With all its rubbish and junk you can still find the most amazing things. These days you can even find the most amazing tools. What most pundits would agree is the feature of Web 2.0 that distinguishes it from what came before, is the prevalence of online applications. Dynamic sites that harness the power of back end databases and java, ajax and flash, silverlight etc.

The reason I love these online apps, over software like say Photoshop or MS Office, is that they are built to be user friendly and simple from the outset. When a developer puts up an online app or tool, it must be simple and intuitive or people will move on and find another web site to tickle their fancy.

The online app that has me excited today is a #backchannel tool called is a simple site that allows you to create an online, temporary, chatroom.  A simple idea and there are many other tools out there that do that.  I just happened on and liked the interface.  The power of this simple tool for education is in the use of #backchannel discussions in the classroom.  In a nutshell, you run a chatroom during your lecture or lesson where students can post ideas and questions, share files and links and you can guage and monitor understanding through their written feedback.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of watching a Microsoft video titled “Schools of the Future”.  In the video we are shown what MS must see as a typical higher education classroom, a lecture hall with the prof at the front standing at the old-school overhead projector writing notes and all the students in the room rather sleepily taking notes in notebooks.  The school of the future was transformed with technology however!!  (some sarcasm there; bear with me) With technology, students all had laptops and so were able to rather sleepily take notes in MS word.  The professor no longer had to stand at the overhead.  He was free to pace back and forth at the front of the room, making notes on his tablet PC which showed those same boring notes on the big screen at the front.  Wow.  Transformative. (more sarcasm)

I mention this video because, besides showing how technology can replace old tools (and still not change the teaching and learning), they also added a feature that I thought was truly transformative.  They were also running an MSN chat for the class to post questions, add ideas, guide the discussion and give feedback to the prof.  The classroom TA manned the chat room at the front, taking the feedback and questions and filtering those to present the prof with common misconceptions, frequestly asked questions and such.  Allowing the students to ask questions in this way, posting their queries and thoughts as they happen, instead of waiting for the end of the lecture, is a little thing, but a great use of technology.  I just this week found several articles about this kind of #backchanneling in the classroom that brought this idea back to the fore for me.  At the time of watching the video I was struck that, using MSN limited the ease of use of this tool.  You would have to ensure everyone had a PC, that they all had MSN accounts, etc.  Not simple.

But, just this week I read about successful backchannel uses in the classroom and online tools for quickly and easily creating a chatroom for your class or lesson, on the fly.  All that students would need is a browser and the Internet.

I love that the Internet is becoming more and more useful with these great learning tools and also that the tech needs in school are being reduced to a nice and simple need: Internet access.

If you want to see what I was reading and where these ideas sprung from this week, get over to and search on backchannel.

Google Spreadsheets now as a Wiki!

Google Spreadsheets, the online spreadsheet program that is part of Google Docs, has just added a new feature by which you can make a spreadsheet open for editing to anyone and everyone.  Before, you could invite collaborators but you had to provide them with a link that included a secret code so only invited people could participate.  Now you can have it open for anyone to click a link from a web page or blog and edit in real-time with many others.  See a full explanation at


Carry Documents Around in Your iPhone

Here’s a simple way to add documents to your iPhone.  This applies to OSX Leopard but I am sure you can do the same thing somehow in Tiger or even on a PC 😉

1) Open your document in its native app.  I wanted to put some Word documents on my phone so I open them in Word.

2) Go to File…Print and choose the PDF button at the bottom.  Save the doc as a PDF.

3) Open the PDF in Preview.  Save as… and save it as a PNG or other image format.

4) Import it into iPhoto.   I created an event called iPhone Documents and then a smart album to hold anything that has the word iPhone (thus the entire event).  You could also just create an album and add documents to it whenever you add them to iPhoto.

5) In iTunes set your iPhone to sync that smart album to your iPhone.  (I already only sync selected albums as I have too many photos to fit on my phone.  One other thing I find useful is syncing the “Last Import” album.  When I connect my iPhone it opens iPhoto and I import any photos I have taken.  I add them to an existing event if applicable or create a new event.  Then I delete the originals from the iPhone.  Then iTunes syncs that last import back to the phone using the event name I chose, and if I added them to an existing event, it syncs that entire event back to the phone.  Seems like a waste, but I find it very handy.  I then have three albums on my phone, the photos I am taking on the phone, the last import and my documents.  Nicely organized.)

Done.  Now you can view your docs in the photo gallery on the iPhone.  The quality is not superb, and text size of 10 will be unreadable, but I think it is cool that you can take docs along if you want.  No editing, mind you, at least not ’till this summer when Documents to Go or something like that comes out through the app store, but handy for now.

Google Shows Mac Users Some Love

Thanks to LifeHacker for this heads-up:

Google Adds Mac-Specific Search

“If you run into a problem on a Windows computer, all you have to do is type a little description of the problem and Google takes care of the rest; Mac users, on the other hand, often need to include a little context in their search—instead of typing a query like text editor, you type text editor mac. Google’s Mac-specific portal, found at, now includes a Mac-specific search box. It’s not groundbreaking, but the guaranteed Mac-specific results could come in handy next time you’re looking for a specific application or you’re troubleshooting your Mac.”

Three Reasons I am Sticking with Firefox over Safari 3.1

I love my Mac.  I really do.  I loved my MacBook and now I love my Macbook Pro.  I prefer OSX to XP or the various Linux flavours I have tried and I like the iLife suite.  I kept my blog using iWeb for awhile and most of the feedback I got when I switched to WordPress was that folks liked the iWeb one better in terms of looks.  So I guess I am a fanboy.  So, when Safari 3.1 came out and people said it was fast, I downloaded it right away and moved all my bookmarks over from Firefox 3.  Safari would be the perfect browser.  Sleek, clean, fast, with all the features I could need.

After only a few days I returned to Firefox. Here’s why:

1. Multi-tabbed Home:

In Firefox I have my three favorite starting places set as my Home pages.  Call me greedy, but I open these three sites every time I get on the web, so I might as well have my browser open them right away, no?  Safari wouldn’t let me.  At least I couldn’t figure out how.

2. RSS subscription handling:

When I find a new site I want to subscribe to, I want to add it to my iGoogle page.  It’s my main home page and I like to see all my RSS feeds on that page.  A great new feature of Safari 3.1 is the way it handles RSS feeds right in Safari, but I want to have a choice as to where I read my feeds.  Safari doesn’t ask me.  This reminds me of why I switched from using iWeb to WordPress.  Control.  Steve Jobs makes things nice and easy for folks, but he is a bit of a control freak.  This is not news to anyone I am sure, but I do get frustrated when I grow beyond the nice and easy ilife stuff and go looking for where I can save my iWeb as HTML and its just not there.  Or when I want to set Safari to let me add my RSS subscriptions to my iGoogle page and it just does what it wants.  Firefox asks me nicely if I want to add a new feed to iGoogle or Google Reader.  Thanks Firefox.

thanks firefox

3. Downloads Button:

Finally, (and this is a little thing but I use it a lot) there’s the “Downloads” button on my Firefox toolbar.

downloads button

I like this button. I missed it in Safari.  I download things a lot.  Maybe I am funny that way.  But I like to check on their progress and I like having this little button right up there where I can get to it without having to go to the Window menu and choose Downloads.  Too many clicks, that.  So I tried adding a button like that to my Safari toolbar.  No can do.

    I have not mentioned plug-ins (Firefox has them and Safari doesn’t) or GreaseMonkey scripts (ditto) because I don’t use them.  But It is nice to know that I can, if I want, seek out a new feature and install it in Firefox.

    For me, these things, while not terribly important, are enough to make me use Firefox 3 over Safari 3.1.  They are small things, but they are important to me.  If anyone can tell me in the comments how to set Safari to open several tabs when it launches or add a new tolbar button for the Downloads window I guess I might give Safari another try.  Otherwise, I might as well use the one that does what I want. Right?  Sorry Steve.