Teacher Tech Tips Alpha

Save files directly to Moodle from within Word, Excel, and Powerpoint

Posted in Tips by Wun on December 10, 2010

Microsoft Education Labs recently updated their Office Add-in for Moodle.  This nifty little add-in lets teachers save and load office documents (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) directly to/from Moodle without having to go through Moodle’s somewhat convoluted file upload process.  I gave it a try, and it works great for me:

After downloading and installing the add-in, the File menu in Word, for example, has two new options: Open from Moodle and Save to Moodle:


Altered file menu after installing the OAM

When you first try to load or save a file from Moodle, the add-in will ask you where your server is (and will remember it for next time):


Add you Moodle site by typing in its web address

My school’s Moodle site uses a username/password for each user (from an Active Directory LDAP authentication, if you must know).  So next, I was presented with a window to log on:


It presents the login page of my school's Moodle site

After the teacher logs into Moodle, they might be presented with a list of the courses they teach if the site is configured in a particular way.  I was not.  Luckily, though, the latest update to the add-in added the ability to search for a particular course.  Once added, it will remember your courses the next time you need them (although you might have to log in again).


You can search for your Moodle courses and save them for future use.

From there, you can browse through all of the course files for all of your classes, save your current document to your Moodle classes, and even load files that you’ve previously uploaded.


Save and Load files directly to/from your Moodle courses!

I’ve given this a try, and it works really well for me.  It won’t create a link to the file on your course page, though; you’ll have to do that part manually.  Still, this nifty little time-saving add-in is great for those of you who use Moodle for your course management, and I’d urge you to give it a try.  It works on the Windows versions of Microsoft Office versions 2003, 2007, and 2010.  (Sorry Mac users. Hopefully a Mac version will be forthcoming.)  For more information, and to download it, see the project page.


Make Websites More Readable (and Printable)

Posted in Tips by Wun on November 21, 2010

Do you print out articles from the web for your students to read?



An article as seen before (top) and after (bottom) using Readability

When you find an article on a website these days, even reputable ones, you don’t just see the article.  You see multiple ads, sidebars with links to other stories, Facebook and Twitter links and live feeds, and a whole slew of other things to distract you or your students from the main content on the web page.  If you want to print out a copy of that article for your students, often all of that crap that you don’t want gets printed, too.  Grrr.  Of course, some websites do have a link to a cleaner “printable” version of their articles, but what do we do about those websites that don’t?

Solution 1: Readability

To set up Readability, visit their website, choose the layout that you like the best, and drag their Bookmarklet to your browser’s bookmark bar.  You can choose from several different text styles, including “Novel”, which puts serif text on a tan background, and “E-book”, which puts sans-serif text on a light-gray background, amongst others.  You can specify the margin size, and even turn hyperlinks into footnotes (which is great for printing out the article since you can’t click a hyperlink on physical paper anyway).  Then, when you visit the website in question, you click on that Readability Bookmarklet that you just created and, voilà, all the crap is instantly gone, leaving nicely formatted, readable text.  Don’t worry, the relevant images are kept, too.

Solution 2: Instapaper

Instapaper does the same thing as readability, but in a different way.  Again, you go to Instapaper’s website, grab their bookmarklet, and copy it to your browser’s bookmark bar (you do have to sign up for a free account, also).  However, when you click it while viewing a web article, contrary to the name of the tool, it doesn’t instantly change what’s on the page.  Instead, it saves the article to your account on Instapaper’s site.  When you go back to Instapaper’s site, you can look at all of your “Instapaper’d” articles in a text-only stripped-down format.  It is more meant as a save-for-later-reading tool, but it also does a great job of formatting the article into a more readable incarnation.

Which is Better?

The disadvantage that Instapaper has over Readability is that you don’t have control over how it’s formatted.  You also have to go through the extra step of going back to the Instapaper site to view the more readable version of the article.  The advantage, however, is that you also get a saved permanent link to the original article.  Instapaper also has additional features, such as downloading for offline viewing and apps for iPhone and other mobile devices, and it will combine multi-page articles into a single page.

In both cases, they’re not perfect.  Using a computer algorithm to try to figure out what is important and what is chaff on a webpage is bound to have limitations.  On rare occasions, they do leave in an advertisement or cut off a paragraph.  However, for the most part, I have found that both do a pretty darn good job at making web-based articles a little more readable, and a lot less annoying.

Use Your Phone to Digitize Notes

Posted in Tips by Wun on September 19, 2010

Most notes can be typed directly into a laptop, but sometimes it’s better to hand write something.  Formulas in math and science are a good example.  Not everyone has a smart board or tablet PC in order to facilitate the digitization of handwritten notes.  And even those of us who do often have the need to digitize other things, like:

  • scraps of paper where we did impromptu lesson-planning or student tutoring
  • chalkboard or whiteboard notes
  • student-made posters
  • evidence of classroom activities
  • receipts for tax-deductible classroom supplies

Some things you could scan, but that requires you to have a scanner handy and to take the time to do it.  However, if you have a good enough camera on your cell phone, just take a pictures of whatever you want to digitize.  For some, that’s enough, but let’s take it a step further: if you have a smartphone, email the photo to yourself or, even better, a web-based note service like Evernote or Google Docs.  Most of these services support emailing photos as attachments (they provide a special personalized email address to which you can email your notes).

On my iPhone, I use a free app called Genius Scan.  After I take a photo with my phone, Genius scan crops and scales only the note part of the photo, optimizes it, and even combines multiple photos into one PDF.  Lastly, I just email it to Evernote, and then I have easy access to it for later reference from anywhere.

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Keep a Simple Log File in Windows

Posted in Tips by Wun on September 13, 2010

It’s always a good idea to keep notes of what goes on in your classroom, but with all of the hustle and bustle of daily classroom activities, it’s often difficult to find the time.  By the time you have a spare moment, you might forget all of the details that you wanted to record.  Here’s a way to keep a quick and easy log file for notes (in Windows).

  • Right-click on your desktop and select New → Text File.
  • Type in “.LOG” as the first line (without the quotes), then hit the return key once.
  • Save the file as whatever you want (for example “student-notes.txt”)
Notepad Log image

A simple trick that adds timestamps to text files

Now, you have a text file on your desktop.  Here’s the cool part: double-click the text file, and when it opens up in the Notepad program a timestamp is automatically added.  Just type in your note, save, and you’re good to go.  You can create a separate note for different things.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Student disciplinary notes (student-notes.txt)
  • Calls home (parent-communication.txt)
  • Professional development, including networking, web research, and etc. (pd.txt)

As a corollary tip, pressing the F5 key while using the Notepad program will also insert a timestamp.

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Copying A DVD Is Legal For Some

Posted in Tips by Wun on July 26, 2010

To be more specific, copying short clips of motion pictures for educational, documentary, or non-profit use is now legal.


In 1998, Congress passed a law called the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which made it illegal to break or bypass digital encryption in order to access copyrighted works.  Many people who have created these copyrighted works (movies, books, music, and etc.) put digital encryption on them in order to prevent people from copying or illegally distributing them, which has become easy with the advent of the Internet and digital media.

Conflicting Laws

However, there are prior laws that allow certain legal uses of copyrighted works, such as for education.  This is referred to as “fair use”.  The conflict here is that although some uses are allowed (like showing a movie clip in class), the DMCA made it illegal to break any digital encryption to get to the point that you access the media for fair use.  This, in essence, nullified fair use for digital media with copyright protection schemes, the most common of which is DVDs.


Every three years, the Library of Congress reviews and issues exemptions for non-infringing use of copyrighted works.  This year, the big story is that they allowed iPhone users to jailbreak their phones.  However, the more apropos part of their ruling for educators is that they extended the DVD copyright exemption for the following cases:

  • Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students
  • Documentary filmmaking
  • Noncommercial videos.

If you can justify one of those situations, then refer to my previous post about how to copy a DVD clip using the software program VLC.

References: [ars technica] [NYT]

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Save a Web Page to a PDF

Posted in Tips by Wun on April 30, 2010

You might occasionally want to have a saved version of a web page for offline viewing.  Perhaps you want to use it in a classroom that has no internet access, or perhaps you want to just save a version because you know the page might change in the future.   You may know that you can save a web page using your browser’s “File -> Save” option.  This saves a version that can be viewed in a web browser, but there are a lot of extra files (the page’s images).  A better option might be to save it to a PDF, a single file with all of the images built-in that anyone can open and view.  PDFMyURL does exactly that.  Give it a try: PDFMyURL

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More Screen Zooming Tools

Posted in Tips by Wun on April 27, 2010

In a previous post, I gave a few options for how to zoom your screen during presentations for students.  Since then, I’ve come across a few others:

  • In Windows 7, the built-in screen magnifier has been much improved.  You just have to hit the Windows key and + or – to do a full-screen zoom (the magnifier program will automatically start).  There are a variety of zoom modes, including full-screen, docked, and lens.  It works really well!
  • Sysinternals has a cool, free utility called ZoomIt which, in addition to screen zooming, also allows you to draw and write notes on the screen.  It even comes with a built-in timer.
  • Magnifiers.org has a whole boatload of other screen magnification utilities.
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Typing Special Characters

Posted in Tips by Wun on March 2, 2010

In science, we use a lot of special symbols that aren’t on the keyboard.  For example, we use the degree symbol for temperature units (°C), a right arrow in chemical equations (→), fractions (½), and so on.  If you’re using Microsoft Word, inserting a special character into your document is as simple as selecting “Insert → Symbol”.  What if you’re using some other program?  Here are some other ways:

Character Map

Windows has a program called “character map”.  You can usually find it under the Start → Accessories menu.  This program lists all of the characters that a particular font contains, including special characters, and allows you to copy and paste them into whatever program you’re using.

Alt Codes

If you took a look at the character map, you might notice some special characters have a keyboard code associated with them.  This is called an alt code.  For example, the alt code for the copyright symbol (©) is Alt+0169.  In order to use the alt code, you hold down the alt key on your keyboard, type the code on the number pad (like 0169), and then release the alt key.  The symbol should then magically show up wherever your cursor is placed.  Note: you must use the number pad; the number keys on the top of the keyboard won’t work for these codes.  Here’s a list of some alt codes and more info.  If there are symbols that you use on a regular basis, it will save you time to just memorize the alt code for that symbol.

HTML Entity Codes

If you’re working on web pages, there’s another way to insert symbols.  Similar to alt codes, there’s a list of special HTML codes that will be translated into the proper symbol by the web browser.  These codes usually begin with an ampersand (&) and end with a semicolon (;).  For example the HTML code © would produce the copyright symbol.  Here’s a list of the HTML entity codes.

Three PowerPoint Power-Ups

Posted in Tips by Wun on January 29, 2010

One of the first few things that teachers start to do when making an effort to use technology in the classroom is to give their lectures on PowerPoint.  The main advantage of this, from my point of view, is that you have a digital copy of your lecture notes that you can change and update very easily, and even distribute to students.  The next step after that might even be to have your students make PowerPoint presentations themselves.  Here are 3 helpful PowerPoint tips:

  1. PowerPoint Presentation Checklist (by my friend Mr. Carl Haley) – You can follow this yourself or, even better, provide it to students as a guide for giving good presentations.
  2. PowerPoint Templates (free directly from Microsoft) – When the default templates get boring, jazz up your presentations with over 150 free slide templates.  Check out a video of them in action.  Note: these templates are only for PowerPoint 2007.
  3. PowerPoint Jeopardy Template – This is the simplest (easiest to edit) template that I found that still maintains that true Jeopardy look & feel.  If you know of a better one, let me know in the comments!

Make a Shortcut to PowerTeacher Gradebook

Posted in Tips by Wun on January 24, 2010

If your school uses PowerSchool for a student information system like mine does, you are probably familiar with PowerTeacher Gradebook.  It is PowerSchool’s online Java-based grading program.  At first, coming from EasyGrade Pro, I didn’t really like it.  There were fewer features, especially keyboard shortcuts, and so on.  However, the ease of being able to access and update my grades from any internet-connected computer has won me over.   The advantages and disadvantages of using an online gradebook can certainly be argued, but one major annoyance with this particular one is that it’s difficult to access quickly.  Let’s say a student drops by after class and says,

“Mr. Chiou, I was looking at my grades online, and I think you entered the wrong grade for the Awesome Project for me.”

So, you check the student’s grade.  Usually, you have to:

  1. Launch your web browser.
  2. Go to your school’s PowerTeacher website.
  3. Log in.
  4. Click on “Gradebook” from the side menu.
  5. Click on “Launch Gradebook”.

That’s not exactly the quickest of endeavors, especially during our time-limited days.  But fear not!  Let’s cut down the steps and make it much faster.  To do that, we’re going to put a shortcut to PowerTeacher Gradebook directly on your computer’s desktop.

First, go through steps 1-4 above.  Then, right-click on the “Launch Gradebook” button.  This brings up a menu.  Click “Save Target As…” (or in Firefox choose “Save Link As…”).

Save it onto your computer’s Desktop.  The file that you save is a JNLP file, but it will work just like a shortcut to the PowerTeacher Gradebook.

That’s it!  Now, whenever you want to launch your Gradebook, you just have to:

  1. Double-click on the “launchGradeBook” icon on your Desktop.
  2. Log in.

Your username and password should be the same as for the PowerTeacher website.  Launching the Gradebook this way is much faster and much more convenient at the same time.  Now, if only the actual grading was this fast…

* Just a quick note, though: in order for this to work, you need to have launched the gradebook the regular way at least once.  Also, if the online gradebook is ever updated to a newer version, you will have to go back and launch it the regular way (in order to download the new version) once again before your spiffy shortcut will work.

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