Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My 10 Ten Tools for Learning

I've been giving this some consideration lately as I've found myself populating and repopulating a couple of machines at home and work with all that I require to keep me happy. So, here they are:

1. Google Search
(Personal) Despite the never ending torrent of brilliantly useful stuff that the Big G churns out, it still is barely necessary to append "search" to their name to be clear what you mean when you say Google is a vital tool. It's not just the basic search, but all the other options like calling up definitions, or doing maths, or conversions, or that when all else fails, most of the time the relevant entry for Wikipedia is there on the first page...

I have Google on almost permanent standby, especially so now (see 10).

2. Microsoft PowerPoint
(Creating) The much maligned app is probably where I do most of my design work, either for scripts, demos or indeed, using Articulate, developing finished products. I also use it for cobbling together graphics in a hurry (2007's much improved graphical power doing much of the heavy lifting that I don't have time to learn in GIMP).

I'm also a fan of it's capabilities for laying out eBooks for publishing to PDF. Most of the time people read eBooks on PC screens, mostly on screens in portrait format, and PowerPoint is set up to do this well. Because of the ease of adding and handling hyperlinks it trumps Word for such activities.

Occasionally I also use it for {gasp} knocking together presentations though, ironically, I think it rather sucks at that.

3. iGoogle
(Personal) This is my blog reader of choice. I prefer the way this organises content compared to Google Reader (apparently there are other readers, but they aren't made by Google). There is so much good stuff written on the blogs that I can't possibly keep abreast of it all - lordy, it's a day a week simply to keep up with Scoble and Tim O'Reilly's spottings alone. iGoogle gives me a manageable selection of my favourites.

4. Twitter
(Personal) I'll admit I was a late early adopter. I at first went through the same denial that the rest of the population of the UK (outside of edu-nerds as far as I can tell) is still going through. Then, around the end of last year I 'Got It'. Truly a great resource, if it is used well (ie not for mixed pro/personal purposes). My client of choice is Echofon, nee Twitterfox, simply because for all the fact that the alternatives seem all to be written in Silverlight or Air, they don't seem to add a great deal of actual factual functionality over this tiny plug-in for the 'Fox.

5. Audacity
(Creating) Easy to use. Great results. Nothing more to say.

I have a Samson CO1u USB microphone. Bloody marvellous bit of kit which I can't recommend highly enough. Since it is USB it bypasses any sub-standard laptop audio circuitry so giving you a great portable studio, even on a netbook.

6. Jing
(Creating) I've done some horrendous jobs where I have been tasked to sit down and shoot, then edit, hundreds of screens of system sim, in Captivate and Camtasia, and other far less handy tools. Personally, I've only been subjected to the same as a learning experience a couple of times and it wasn't pleasant. When I want to learn something generic, instead I look at the thousands of walk-throughs available on YouTube or their professional equivalents at Lynda.com and get just what I need, when I need it. Jing makes it easy to create these for what you need and, more importantly, gets them online in moments. It is the best IT support tool I have found to help me as the "IT guy" supporting learners on a two year online programme we run.

7. Wordpress
(Personal/Creating) I love Wordpress. If it weren't for the fact that what few blogrolls I've made are pointing here to Blogger, I'd jump ship in an instant. It is a GREAT CMS. I use it for my own website, a couple of other blogs that I update even more infrequently than this one, and our still fairly new 'official' workplace blog (actually only there to create links in to our website to improve the Google rating as WP works so well with search engines too, but I still try to make it informative and fun). It is the yardstick for power, control and usability by which all other CMSs should be measured (are you listening LMSs developers?)

Blogs are obviously great ways to consolidate personal learning, but as it is such a great CMS I think that it lends itself exceptionally well to broadcasting content of a non-blog nature, or with multiple authors, as the centrepiece of an informal learning network.

8. Anki
(Personal) Most of my own personal learning is done in aid of expanding my grasp of Japanese, the other tongue in my multi-lingual household (there are only 2, but I avoid using bi-lingual lest anyone should think I can do much more than order a beer or congratulate the chef). To that end, Anki, a spaced repetition app is a vital part of my toolkit. It draws on the work of Ebbinghaus, as interpreted by the guys behind Memosyne, the granddaddy SRS tool, but puts it in to a great looking package that just works really well.

9. 5-clicks
(Creating) There are lots of little apps that I use for special specific tasks when developing, mostly around colour and screengrabs. A great guy I worked with, Rory Peterson, put me on to this extraordinarily simple tool which I'm loving right now, which takes only, surprise surprise, 5 clicks to complete taking a screen grab. Then you have a great shot ready for GIMP to do its magic.

10. Android
(Personal) I just got a new phone, an HTC Magic, which is a smartphone powered by the Android operating system. Or, an easier way to say it is, "I gotta Googlephone". This amazing beast rolls together several of the items above in to one extremely portable package. I'm really excited by the opportunities that this tech embodies. I sleep with it. I stroke its screen at night. I whisper sweet nothings into its mouthpiece as it lies in standby. Delightful.

Some omissions:
Articulate - I use it a lot, but it is so odd in the way some of the tools behave, and the default output interface so horrible, that I can't include it here. I suspect it'll do really well as most users are fanboys rather than objective users.
Moodle - Again, I spend much of my time using this, and now that I am finally using it to run a higher level educational course, it starts to make sense. But again, the user experience is so awful that I cannot bring myself to say that I like it particularly.
Firefox - It's a browser. A great, extensible cuddly browser, but a browser nonetheless. It's slow, a resource hog and really is only there to open the web to me. Chrome does that too. And neither of them is IE. However, much as I like it, picking it would be like saying that I rate "paper" as a tool for learning, or water as a medium for boating in.
XAMPP - I'd love to include this actually - it's a web server that takes about 15 minutes to set up - 10 if you exclude the download time. It's the digital equivalent of a training ground as you can set up all sorts of fun things in it, like your own version of every FOSS LMS you care to mention, all at the same time, or a CMS or wiki, and bugger around until you break it, without fear of annoying anyone or having to pay a web host for the privilege.
SurveyMonkey - great way of doing research, getting feedback, surveying needs, finding out what everyone wants at the pub on friday so you can preorder. Just not using it quite enough to think of it until now. Maybe one for my list in 2010...


Bryan Jones said...

Dan- I use PPT 2007 and SnagIt for 90% of my graphic creation. I start sweating when I use Gimp or Photoshop ;) I'd add SnagIt to your list.

I also really like working with PNGs with transparent backgrounds, but I have my designers do the hard work for me and I just work with the finished files.

Dan said...

Hi Bryan

I've used SnagIt a lot in the past - very neat it is too - but now I'd be more likely to use Jing in the same situation.

And many's the time that I've wished that finding a set of images of the same person on iStock wasn't such a crap shoot, so I think I'd have to endorse your image packs too. Nice one!

Bryan Jones said...


I'll have to check out Jing. I've never used it before.

Thanks for the endorsement of my image packs. I'm having a lot of fun creating the assets that have been on my wish-list for years.

I'd love to get your detailed feedback on the concept and see if I can incorporate any of your suggestions in my next photo-shoot. Do you have any time to chat this week?

Dan said...

Sure thing Bryan, I'd love to. I'm "danroddy" on Skype. It's a 7 hour difference? I can do any time between 8pm-10pm UK, just give me the time that suits you.

Nancy Weitz said...

Thanks for your list, Dan. I use many of the same tools. I agree completely about Moodle -- awful UI.

For stock images, I tend to use stock.xchng.


Carolyn Ford Burac said...

Dan, I found you on an elearning website when you commented that you had spent some time installing Moodle manually on your web server. I am currently trying to figure this out. I've even ordered an instructional DVD on the subject and I still can seem to get to the page where I can install it on 1and1. 1and1's Click-N-Build feature for Moodle sucks! I am about to pull my hair out trying to figure it out. Please, I beg of you to contact me. I need some help before I start crying.

Dan said...


I'd be happy to explain the process. I use XAMPP for my personal use. I have also set up Moodle on 1&1 though it was a while ago. It is far from simple. If you just want Moodle to get familiar with it, XAMPP is perfect. If you are looking to create a live system, that will be a bit trickier, but I'd be happy to dig around a bit. danroddy@hotmail.com