Corpus and the Principles of Good Design

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Image courtesy of With Associates

It isn’t a secret that I am not enamoured with the use of corpora in the language classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea and I do use them from time to time, but my beef is with how they are designed. It’s as if the people who created it could care less about design and are only concerned with the output. Whenever I gripe about this, there are always a few to defend it saying that they are able to make it work for them. The problem for me is that I don’t want to just ‘make it work’, I want it to be almost seamless starting from the first use. I decided to apply Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design to the current design of corpora, and then seeing what could be done to instigate change. I am not a programmer, so these ideas are just being put out there as a request to those who are able to make change.

Good design is innovative: Innovation is not just about change. It is more about approaching something from a new angle, envisioning something in the light of things changing around it. As technology advances, we can see a product in the light of new possibilities, new users.

In the case of corpora, not much has changed in the past 15-20 years other than the access (internet) and databases (larger, more nuanced). For most, the interface looks like it hasn’t left the 90s or is so overly complicated that the average user has a difficult time figuring out what to do with it all.

I would love to see some fresh eyes and minds added to the design process here. I have some ideas of where this could go, but if we put our collective minds together, I believe we could really make some serious headway in the area of innovation. Here are some areas I think we could work on:

Data collection. Instead of relying on a static database that needs periodic updates, what about making it more organic, gathering data in real time? Better yet, collection could be done through crowdsourcing.

Input. Right now, a person needs to enter a word or phrase in a text box and then sift through all of the results. We could harness the power of voice recognition, listening for prosody clues and matching that up to audio data instead of plain text. Yes, this would require a great deal more processing power, but this is something that could overcome. Just look at Siri as an example.

Fuzzy logic. This used to be all the rage for a while. I even had a rice cooker with this function. I’m not sure what it meant in that context, but in most, it takes a wider interpretation of the input and uses logic to figure out what you may need from the clues you have given. In this case, you could enter in a partial sentence and it could produce lexical outcomes that generally match your context.

Questions. What if the interface asked you input questions instead of using radio buttons and vague descriptors. It could ask questions such as, “Do you want to find words that describe _[insert word you entered]_?” For English language learners, asking questions of purpose instead of relying on them to understand the descriptors would be much easier for them to comprehend.

Divide things up. Instead of having everything on one page, divide into modules. If you want to get more, you can ask for more information and it will move from module to module. In relation to that, have a different interface for simple entry and more advanced.

Integration with other apps. What if it could harness the power of other apps such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google Drive? You could then access the content directly from your other app instead of having to go to the corpus page to enter it.

Good design makes a product useful: When I hear the word useful, I automatically connect it to the user. In this case, corpora have been so focused on linguistics users, that the broader audience of language students has been almost completely pushed aside. We need to think like a student and what they want out of it. Some of my students have found a corpora useful, but others feel it doesn’t give the information they are looking for. We should sit down with the users and figure out what they want out of it. Dieter also mentioned in this area that nothing in the design should detract from the usefulness. I think there are a number of detractors in the corpora I have used. Let’s remove them or at least keep them out of the way from the average user.

Good design is aesthetic: There is nothing wrong with making something look nice. I believe it shows that you truly care about your product and the people that are using it. It personalizes the product and makes it more comfortable for users. In this case, I would love to see corpora take on a more modern look with a conscious effort to fit in with modern usages such as mobile devices.

Good design makes a product understandable: I don’t remember where I read this, but the mechanisms used on doors are designed in such a way that we know what is required to make it work. A horizontal bar means that we are able to push it open, where as a vertical handle is designed to be pulled. We don’t even need to think about it. As we approach the door, we know what to do and which way the door is going to open even before we reach it. The purpose of the product is self-explanatory.

 This is not the case with corpora. For the most part, we need to show people how to use it and demonstrate its usage. Most students have no idea what it is used for, even after giving them a short introduction. It isn’t until they use it a few times that it starts to make sense. If we could design the corpus to be more intuitive and make its purpose more transparent, I think we will see a major spike in usage.

 It also should borrow design elements from other products that we are familiar with. I use the example of the online classroom app, Edmodo. When a student goes there for the first time, they immediately see it as familiar as it looks and works very much like Facebook. In no time at all, students are able to get done to work focusing on the content instead of the usage. This is where we need to be with corpora.

Good design should be unobtrusive: There should be some room in the design for users to make it their own. They should be able to make it fit their usage instead of the other way around. The interface should be simple, not dominating. It is about the results, not the tool. This sounds contradictory to what I have said earlier, but it isn’t. If you are fighting to work with the interface, your energy is poured into making it work, instead of being a seamless transition from input to result.

Good design is honest: We need to be careful not to oversell the corpora and what is can do. In the end, it still requires a bit of understanding in how to get to the results you need. We need to make sure to strip down the corpus into discrete objectives, making it more honest in what it is able to accomplish.

Good design is long-lasting: The best products stand the test of time. A comparable product to the corpus is the dictionary. The dictionary hasn’t made major changes throughout its life. Any changes have build off of the core product by adapting to the needs of the users and the changes in technology.

 In the case of a corpus, we need to consider the architecture. Building a corpus on a structure that is heavily dependent on one technology is dangerous. An example of that is Adobe Flash. Who could have foreseen the original growth and the subsequent fall in usage? By being platform agnostic, a database can be moved from one architecture to another with relative ease. Flexibility is the key here. Even the database itself needs to allow for a natural evolution in usage and language.

Good design is thorough down to the last detail: Dieter goes on to say that nothing should be left to chance. Don’t assume users will be familiar with the interface. It should provide plenty of assistance and give samples, usage ideas, and possibly testimonials.

Good design is environmentally friendly: While a corpus is not a physical object, there are some ways that it can be eco-friendly through the limit on bandwidth (server energy costs) such as by limiting graphic use and not using power hungry interfaces such as Adobe Flash. Also, if we think about environment in the more general sense of where something is, a corpus should be situated within the network in such as way that it doesn’t impose on others. Tight integration with other programs help situate it within the network as opposed to fighting against it.

Good design is as little design as possible: Once again, a corpus shouldn’t try to do too much. It should divide itself up into focused segments or modules that can be connected or pulled apart depending on the usage.

What do you think? What could be done to make a corpus more user-friendly and practical? How could a corpus be re-envisioned for the modern age? These are just some of my thoughts, it is now your turn.

Awwapp: A registration-free collaborative whiteboard

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One of the best, free online collaborative whiteboards that doesn’t need registration has always been Awwapp, but that site has added some new features making it even better. This site works on basically every device making it perfect for the classroom. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Awwapp and click on ‘Start Drawing’.

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  • Click-and-drag anywhere on the screen to draw.

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  • To change colour, click on the top-left button and click on the new colour.

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  • To change pen thickness, click on the button with a dot on it and choose a new thickness.

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  • To erase anything, click on the third-button and click on the eraser icon (second option). Click-and-drag anywhere on the screen to erase.

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  • To add text, click on the third-button and click on the ‘A’ icon (third option). Click anywhere on the screen and a text box appears at the bottom of the screen. Type in your message and then hit enter.
  • To add an image to the board, click on the third-button and click on the image icon (fourth option).
    • Choose an image from your computer.
    • Resize the image by clicking-and-dragging any of the double-arrow buttons.
    • Rotate the image by clicking-and-dragging any round rotate-arrow buttons.
    • Once you are done, click on the checkmark button to add the image or click on the red X button to delete it.

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  • To undo anything you have just done, click on the third-button and click on the circle-arrow button (fifth option). You can click on this button as many times as necessary.
  • To delete everything and start fresh, click on the third-button and click on the trashcan button (sixth option).
  • To create a paid account or log in, click on the fourth button from the top and click on ‘Create new account’. An account isn’t needed to create a shareable online whiteboard, but there are options for voice chat, saved boards, and view-only guests for a price.

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  • To invite others to draw together, click on the bottom button and click on ‘Invite to board’. Copy the URL and click on close. Share the URL with anyone you would like to draw together with. Be careful, anyone with the link can enter.

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  • To save your board as an image, click on the bottom button an then click on ‘Download image’. A PNG image will be saved to your computer.
  • To share the image online at a certain stage, click on the bottom button and then ‘Share image’. A new window will open. Copy the URL and share with anyone. Any changes after that point will not show up. You will need to create a new URL for any new changes.

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  • To chat with online users, click on the bottom button and then ‘Show chat’. A chat box will appear in the bottom-right corner. Anyone can type in a message and hit the enter key to send the text.

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Corpora and Collocations

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At the last BCTEAL Conference in May, a colleague of mine gave an interesting talk on collocations and made mention of the use of some websites to help students understand what words normally go together. After the session, I was talking with another teacher about the lack of really easy to use corpus tools for students. It appears to me that most corpora are designed for researchers and are way too complex for the average teacher or student to use. There are a few tools that are not too bad, but for the most part, they are a mess visually and in their usage. Maybe corpus designers feel they need to add as many options as possible to satisfy the academic community who typically use it.

I did a little research after the fact and was either directed to or managed to find a few tools that may be useful for students and teachers who are interested in locating collocates of English words. In case you are not sure what any of this means, I thought a little primer on corpora might be in order. For those who understand them better than I do, my apologies for possibly oversimplifying what they are and how they work. My goal here is to provide a simple overview.

What is a corpus?

Simply put, a corpus is a text database. There is no size limit on a corpus, but the larger the corpus, the chances of a more accurate result increases. Large corpora (plural for corpus) usually have millions of words which have been added from hundreds of thousands of documents and transcripts. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) is made of a incredible amount of documents resulting in a 100 million word database.

What kind of corpora are there?

There are corpora based on spoken speech taken from things such as television, interviews, radio, and other recordings. There are also academic, news, and literature databases just to name a few. It is also possible to create your own using texts, although the sample size is fairly small.

How are they used?

The original corpora were used by publishers and researchers to determine common language usage in publications and language studies. Dictionaries, textbooks, and other coursebooks make heavy use of corpora to determine their content. Researchers have used corpora for cross-cultural language use studies such as comparing essays written by students in one country versus another. This helps in understanding language usage in various contexts to assist others such as teachers in the classroom.

Currently, corpora usage has been extended to the average person such as the teacher in the classroom or even the language student directly. Tools like those listed below help students and teachers to better understand how English is put together in various genres and situations, such as word collocates (words that normally go together) and position in the sentence.

Collocation Tools


COCA

COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English): This is an excellent corpus, but not the easiest to navigate for collocations. Being that it uses current American English, this database sets it apart from most of the others listed here. Here is a simple way to get collocations:

  • Go to Coca and type your word in ‘Word(s)’ box.

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  • Click on the ‘Collocates’ link just below the ‘Word(s)’ box.
  • Click on the ‘Search’ button.
  • A list will appear on the right in order of collocation frequency (the number of collocates with your keyword is listed to the right under ‘Freq’). Click on any of the words and a list of sentences will appear below.

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Lextutor

Lextutor Concordance: This is not one of the prettiest sites you will ever find, nor is it that easy to navigate, but it is pretty powerful. The collocation function is somewhat limited, but still useful. Here is a simply way to get a list of collocations:

  • Go to Lextutor Concordances and type your word in the box next to ‘Keywords’ and ‘equals’.

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  • Click on ‘Get concordance’.

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  • You will get a short list of sentences listed in alphabetical order of the words directly to the left of your keyword. You can change that at the top of the page in the ‘sort’ drop-down menus.

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  • Scroll to the bottom of the page to get your short list of collocates.

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JTW

Just the Word (JTW): This is a popular tool with language teachers and students and for good reason. Out of the most used collocation tools, this is one of the easiest to navigate, although it is a bit limiting. It is based on the BNC, so the results are decidedly British (i.e. the collocations may be different than in North American English). Here is how it works:

  • Go to JTW and type your word in the ‘Enter a word or short phrase’ box and click on ‘Combinations’.

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  • You will get a list of collocations divided by ‘clusters’. These clusters are related to the meaning of the word and the word type. You will also see a green line showing how often these word combinations are found together.

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  • Click on any of the word combinations and you will get a list of the sentences with that combination.

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Collection

Corpora Collection: This is a collection of some of the open corpora including the BNC, Brown, and Reuters. You can change which corpus you use and can get a list of words that collocate with your keyword in that database. Here is a simple use of this site:

  • Go to the Corpora Collection site and type your keyword into the box at the top of the page.

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  • Click on the button next to ‘Collocations’ about halfway down the page.

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  • Click on ‘Submit’ at the top of the page.

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  • You will get a list of collocations in order by score from most to least.

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Word

Word and Phrase: This site has a number of tools, but I just wanted to focus on collocation tools for students and teachers. This site is another of those that has lots of functions, but the tools are complex or not necessary for students. Here is how you can create a simple collocations list:

  • Go to Word and Phrase and click on ‘Frequency list’.

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  • Type your word in the ‘Word’ box and click on ‘Search’

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  • You will get a list on the right-hand side listed by parts of speech (PoS). Click on the PoS that you would like to see and a list of sentences will be displayed below.

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  • The collocations are listed alphabetically by those to the right of the word.

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Skell

SkELL: This site is based on the Sketch Engine which is used by a number of other sites. It uses a cross-section of texts. It is also very simple to use and offers something a little different. Here is how it works:

  • Go to SkELL and type your word in the box at the top of the page.

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  • Click on ‘Word Sketch’ and a list of words under word type categories appears below. Click on one of the words listed below to get a list of sentences using that word combination.

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Flax

Flax Learning Collocation: This is easily one of the simplest and also nicest of all of the collocation sites. Thanks to Mura Nava who kindly pointed me in the direction of this site during one of my corpus rants on Twitter, I now have a site I can comfortably send my students to knowing they won’t need a lot of hand holding through the process. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Flax Learning Collocations and type your word into the box at the top of the page and click on ‘go  (you can also choose a different corpus from the drop-down menu to the left of ‘go’ for clicking on it).

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  • You find a nice list of collocation broken down by usage and a number beside each collocation. This is how often it is found in the database.

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  • Click on any of the collocation and you will get a new list showing the variations of that collocation. Click on any of those and you will get a list of sample sentences using that combination.

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Let me know what you think. Do you have any to add? How do you use corpora in your classroom? Share you ideas, thoughts, and comments below. Thank you!

Frequency Level Checker: Easily check the lexical level of a text

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As an English language instructor, I am always on the hunt for reading and listening material that I can use in my classroom. As simple as that sounds, it is always a tricky endeavor simply because most of the material created is meant for someone fluent in the language and makes use of a larger lexicon than language learners have.

While there are a number of tools that provide reading level scores such as Gunning-Fog and Flesch-Kincaid, these are designed for native speakers and are connected to student grade levels. They take into account sentence complexity and paragraph length along with vocabulary density, but don’t give an indication of what words, phrases, or idioms that increase the difficulty.

A few years ago, I came across a rather simplistic looking tool that has really helped me out over the years to find and edit text for my students that fits within their vocabulary level. Here is how it works:

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  • Find a text you would like to check and paste it into the box at the top of the page.

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  • You will find five options below the text box.
    • Level 1 = the main 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 2 = the next 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 3 = the 800 most used words in academic English.
    • Outside Levels = words not in the above three levels. Proper names fall under this category since they are not in the vocabulary lists.
    • Symbols = anything that is not a letter (eg. punctuation, numbers).
  • There are a few options on using the colour coding system:
    • Select the colour of the text for each of the levels by clicking on appropriate radio button. I tend to leave everything black that is not what I want to find and make the one or two levels in colour that I want to highlight. For example, if I am trying to find words for my intermediate level class that may be difficult for them, I select black for Level 1 and for Symbols, but make Level 2 red, Level 3 green, and Outside Levels blue.
    • If you want to only see words from a specific level or levels, you can hide everything else by choosing ‘Invisible’ for those levels you want to hide. This is helpful when you are building a glossary or are looking for lower level synonyms for simplifying/altering the text.
  • Once you have chosen your colour options, click on ‘Enter’ and a new window or tab opens up with three areas.
    • The main area in the top-left has the text in the colours you have chosen.
    • Along the bottom, you have the totals and percentages for each category, including word families. This is helpful for seeing what percentage of the text your students should know. Keep in mind you want the percentage to be pretty high (~95%) for fluency and for figuring out words from context.

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I hope that helps. Let me know what you think!

Divii: A searchable video dictionary

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A really useful tool for students to see vocabulary in context is the corpus. One of the difficulties of corpus results as well as dictionaries is explaining something that is very visual in nature such as movement. Also, since it is text based, you are unable to hear the pronunciation as well as any nuances to the language such as stress. An interesting online tool that searches transcripts from videos in a semi-corpus way is Divii. It is free and doesn’t require registration to use. One caveat is that it uses a number of video sources, so it may not always be appropriate for younger students. It should be fine for older students who probably will appreciate the various contexts instead of everything being so academic. Here is how it is works:

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  • Go to divii.org and type a search term in the ‘Search words here for video examples’ box. You can type in a single word or a phrase. Click on the search button or hit the ‘Enter’ key.

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  • You will be taken to your search results with a thumbnail of the video on the left and the text from a section of that video with the word or phrase in it. Click on the video you would like to watch and it will start to play, showing the transcript with the counter time.

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  • It will continue to move through the transcript in sections as it plays. Click on a section of the transcript to play that section or click on the video to pause it. Click anywhere outside of the video to get back to the search results.

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As you can see, it is fairly easy to use. Once again, it is something I would only use with adult learners based on some of the content I encountered along the way. There isn’t anything there that would persuade me away from using it altogether, but it is something to consider before using in class.

TogetherTube: Watch videos or listen to audio together with others online

togethertube1One of the amazing things that webtools can do is to bring students together no matter where they are. TogetherTube is another great free tool that doesn’t require registration. It allows groups of people to watch videos or listen to audio files together in realtime, even if they are in other parts of the world. The files are synchronized so they all see it as if they were in the same room together.

This could be a really great tool for the language classroom where students could be assigned a video or audio file to watch or listen to with their classmates or in a group. Instead of doing it as a class, they could use their own devices or even be in different places and watch or listen to together and comment in the chat box.

Here how to use it:

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  • You now will be taken to the viewing room.

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  • Now to add your audio or video files. You can either search for a YouTube, Vimeo, or Dailymotion video or SoundCloud audio file, or you can paste in a web address (URL) from any of those sites. Click on ‘Search Videos’, type in your search description, and choose the site you would like to search.

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  • You will now see the video or audio files found using your search criteria, or the file using the URL.

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  • Once you have located the audio or video file you would like to watch or listen to with others, click on the green ‘thumbs-up’ button. The video will now appear in the player window area.

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  • The video will start playing immediately. You can pause it if you are planning on watching or listening with others. You can also adjust the video quality by clicking on the arrow in the bottom-right corner.

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  • To invite others to watch or listen with you, click on the ‘Invite Friends’ button along the top bar.

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  • A dialogue box will appear with a link you can copy and share with others. Be careful, this is a room anyone can enter without a password, so don’t share it on a public site such as Twitter or Facebook.

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  • To avoid others from finding your room on TogetherTube, click on the ‘Room Settings’ button along the top and a new page will open.

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  •  Uncheck the ‘Public Room’ option and click on ‘Save’. You can also change the room name if you would like and even add a description. There are a number of other options on the left side menu, but most of those are for registered users. Close this window to return to your room.
  • In you room, you also have a text chat option on the right-hand side. Just type your message and hit enter to send it to all users in the room.

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  • Any user that enters the room will see the video or hear the audio being played at the same time as all other participants in the room. Anyone can pause the file and even add other videos or audio files to the playlist  by searching or pasting in a URL and clicking on the ‘thumbs up’ button. Files with the most votes get bumped up the playlist.

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 Here is a printable guide for teachers and students

Create an online resource library with students using Send Ape

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One of the workshop sessions I have given over the past few years in on the creation of a resource library with students, a place for them to find reading or listening material that they can use outside of the classroom. Getting students engaged in extensive reading and listening is critical in their language learning process. The more they are exposed to the language in use, the more they are able to comprehend and make important connections.

I am also an advocate of students taking control of their own learning. They are only with me for a short time each week in comparison to time outside of the classroom. They need to learn how to learn on their own, a skill that many students have not yet been exposed to in a more traditional learning environment. Allowing students to choose their own reading and listening material is important since they will become more engaged in the process and also will learn the vocabulary necessary within the environment they plan on using English (ex. their major in university, their work environment, travel).

A large part of them taking control of their learning is in finding and creating content that appeals to them and then sharing that with others who may also find it helpful. This is simplified through the use of social sharing online, a cloud-based approach to the traditional library. This allows students to create audio or video content for listening, and also the creation of text-based material for reading. Even photos can used to share signs, newspaper articles, and anything else students find throughout their day that can be useful in learning language in context.

There are a number of ways of doing this, but there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle is the use of online sites that require registration. If it at all possible, I try to use online tools that don’t require that students give up their personal information. Also, the site needs to be accessible from multiple devices, not just laptops or desktops.

One such site that works very well for this purpose is Send Ape. Send Ape is a file sharing site that allows for video and audio playback, document and image viewing, and multiple users without having to sign up or deal with advertisements. Here is how it works and how it may be used as a resource library:

  • Go to Send Ape and click on ‘Create new page’.

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  • Send Ape will give you a page with a unique name. From what I can see, there is no way to change this. In the middle of the page, you will see a dotted box that says, “Drop your files here”. You can either drag and drop your files into the box, or you can click on the box and you will be prompted with a file manager where you can choose your file.

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  • Once your file is loaded, depending on the file type, you will see it appear in a box on the righthand side.
  • Video files can be played in a window or fullscreen by clicking on the ‘Preview’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the video in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload video they have taken on their mobile devices without having to sign up for YouTube. Lastly, students can also archive the video by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline viewing.

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Video pop-up window

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Direct link shared video file window

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  • You can listen to the audio files by clicking on the ‘Play’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the audio file in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload audio they have recorded on their mobile devices without having to sign up for any site. Lastly, students can also archive the audio file by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline listening.

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  • Most documents, including PDFs and Microsoft Office documents, can be viewed directly in File Ape. Click on the ‘Preview’ button and a pop-up window will appear with the document.
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Document pop-up viewer

  • Click on the box icon with an arrow in it in the pop-up window and File Ape will open the document in a Google Document viewer that you can share with others.
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Google document viewer

  • All items are shared in a “page” that can be shared with others. You can create as many pages as you would like, although there is a 4GB limit if you use the unregistered option. Sign up and you will be given 10GB of storage and a login ID. Unfortunately, you will need to use a Google or Facebook account to register. There is not email option available.
  • To create a new page, click on the ‘+Add page’ button on the left side of the screen.

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  • There are a number of options available for each page.

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  • The far left button pops out the share options. The best choice is the link available at the bottom of the box. You can share this page with anyone using this link. It is also useful for when users switch computers without an account. More on that in a minute.

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  • The second button changes the view from ‘Blog’ view to ‘Thumb’ or ‘List’.
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Thumb view

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List view

  • The third button along the top is the sort button. Click to change it from most recent to alphabetical.

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  • The fourth button is the security button. Students can choose to add a password to the page before sharing.

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  • The fifth button along the top is the availability option. Users can set a date when to make it available and when to stop making it available.

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  • The last button is an important one. You can choose if visitors can add files to the page (great for students to have others give their input), can allow others to view their page (ie. make it private), or if visitors can delete items from the page (probably best kept off). Students can also delete pages here.

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So how would this work as a resource library with students? Have students create their own pages and then share them with the rest of the class with the option available for others to add content. Maybe one student is interested in computers. That student could make a list of reading and listening material that they have found or created and then share it with their classmates. Other students can then add files they find related to that topic to the page. This can be collected on a class website or a shared document. This becomes the reading and listening resource library for the class.

There are a lot of other great uses for Send Ape such as sharing videos with students, having students share their presentations on a page so the teacher can get them all lined up and ready when students are ready to present to the class. Teachers can share listening files with the class for those who missed class. Teachers and students could give feedback on writing assignments.

Here is a printable guide to creating a page as a resource library.

Here is a sample page you can add to. Please keep it clean! :)

Let me know what you think about Send Ape!