VLC for the Language Classroom

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Last week, I did a technology workshop for a group of language teachers and one of the things we covered was the free open source software, VLC. For those who are not familiar with this program, it is a multimedia player for most computers that recognizes almost every type of audio and video file you throw at it. It has saved me a number of times in the language classroom and has become my go-to application for media files. Here are some of the things it can do:

Installing:


Question: I have my computer and speakers set at the loudest setting, but it is still too quiet. How can I make it louder?

Answer: Open the file in VLC and then adjust the volume in the bottom-right corner of the window. You can only increase the volume by an additional 25% this way, but you can increase it even more by using the hotkeys.

  • Windows and Linux: Ctrl key and the up or down arrow keys
  • Mac: Command key and the up or down arrow keys

VLC Increase Audio

Question: The speaking in the video/audio file I am using is a little too fast for my lower level students. How do I slow down the audio without changing pitch?

Answer: VLC has this feature built into the player. The speed adjustment only affects the playback and will not change the original file.

  • Windows or Linux: Open the file in VLC and turn on the Status Bar (click on View -> Status Bar). Click on the ‘1.00x’ at the bottom of the screen and then move the slider back and forth to increase or decrease the speed.

VLC Status Bar

VLC Slow Down Audio

  • Mac: Open the file in VLC and click on Playback in the menu bar and then use the slider under Playback Speed.

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Question: The video is too long and I only want a section of it. How can I create a small clip from a section of my video?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC. There is a work around for Mac, but it isn’t very easy.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to record, simply click on the record button once to start and again to stop recording. The new video file will appear in the Videos Library folder.

VLC Advanced Menu

VLC Recorder

Question: I want to keep repeating a section of my audio/video file so my students can hear/watch it over and over again. How can I do that?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to repeat, simply click on the A-B Loop button once to set the start point and when you get to the end, simply press it again. This will keep repeating this section until you press the A-B Loop button one more time. You can set this up ahead of time and simply pause the video or audio file until you are ready to play it.

VLC Loop Button

Question: I want to skip to different sections of my media file. How can I set this up?

Answer: VLC makes use of bookmarks which can be saved for later use.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Playback -> Custom Bookmarks -> Manage). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Create button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on Media -> Save Playlist to File

VLC Using bookmarks

  • Mac: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Windows -> Bookmarks). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Add button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on File -> Save Playlist

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Let me know if there are any other tips you would like to add to this list.

Adapting texts for use in the English language classroom

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The other day, Jen Artan was asking me about finding authentic reading material for my class that wasn’t too difficult. The comment was from a blog post I had written about Frequency Level Checker and so I thought it might be a good time to go through my steps in adapting material for my classroom. I know there is a lot of debate about adapting authentic material for the language classroom, but I feel there is a balance here that needs to be maintained between giving texts that are too difficult for students and needing students to be exposed to authentic language in use. I don’t believe that adapting a text has to take away from the authenticity and will make it better for students.

Step one: Copying the text

There are a few options here. If you already have the text in a document, there’s nothing more to do than just select the text and copy it. If you are copying from a website or a paper document, there are few more steps involved.

One of the problems of copying from webpages is the extra text you often end up getting due to a number of factors. To reduce, or even eliminate this, you can use one of the following bookmarklets (each page has instructions on how to install and use the bookmarklet with your browser):

Read Now from Readability: This bookmarklet converts the page you are on into a clean, readable page from which you can easily copy the text. Also works well when you have a page that is hard to read due to too many ads, small text, and other distractions. One of my favourite bookmarklets.

Text Only from Textise: This boomarklet converts the page you are on into a text only page. Unfortunetly, it also leaves all of the image tags and other extraneous bits. The nice thing is that it is plain text, so the formatting is completely stripped away which works well for some difficult pages.

Print Friendly from PrintFriendly and PDF: This bookmarklet makes the page you are on into a printable page and leaves you some formatting options as well. One nice thing is the option to remove the images from the page. You can also click on objects and lines on the page to delete them, allowing you to remove image captions and other header and footer data. You can also make the page into a PDF for printing.

Instapaper Text from Instapaper: This bookmarklet is similar to Read Now.

If your text is on a piece of paper somewhere or on a webpage or PDF that is locked, you can always convert the text into an image and then use OCR to convert to text. Here are some options for converting text:

Office Lens from Microsoft: This is a free mobile app for iOS, Android, and Microsoft Mobile devices. This is my favourite app on my phone. I use it for “scanning” all sorts of things from documents to business cards to rewards and membership cards that take up too much space in my wallet. Once the image is taken, Office Lens automatically crops and adjusts the image for clarity. You can then have the image automatically uploaded to OneNote which will take the image and run OCR to find text which can then be searched and / or copied. This is now my go-to app for documenting things.

OnlineOCR: This is a registration-free online app that converts images into a text file. It can also convert to a formatted Word document, but that doesn’t always works as well. The text is amazingly accurate, even more so than what I’ve found with Adobe Acrobat.

Google Drive: You can upload an image to your Drive account and convert the image to text by opening the image with Google Docs. In the new file, you will find the image at the top with the text down below. It works pretty well, but I find I have to strip away a lot of formatting first.

Step two: Highlighting difficult words

Once you have your text ready, go to Frequency Level Checker and check your text there for vocabulary level. Here are some general tips on usage:

  • Set Level 1 as black and then make all of the other options as red (ie. Level 2, Level 3, Outside Levels, and Symbols). This way you can get a quick visual of how many of the words are outside of the main 1000 words we use in General English. If your text is a sea of red, then it may be a good sign that the text is quite high. Even for a higher level class, a text with a lot of words above the first level may make it too difficult to read fluently.
  • Take a screenshot of the page or keep the page open for reference later on.
  • This is only a guide. Keep in mind that a particular word or phrase may appear multiple times throughout the text making the text look denser than it is.

Step three: Adapting the text

For words or phrases that are outside of the lexical range of my students, there are four options available to me: define, delete, simplify, or leave alone:

  • Define: If I feel the word is important for the student to know (eg. an important word for the story, or a word I think would be important for them to learn at this point), I can create a glossary of sorts for the story. This glossary should not be long, maybe in the 5-7 word range for a news article. I tend to just put the glossary in the story and will highlight the word (eg. make it bold). I may do something before the student starts reading as a pre-reading exercise, but I don’t find it makes much of a difference and often takes up more time than necessary.
  • Delete: This is a bit trickier since it often means re-writing a section of the story. Often times, I will take out a sentence that has some difficult phrasing if it doesn’t really add much to the story.
  • Simplify: This is what I primarily do to the difficult sections. I find easier ways to say something in order to make the story more readable. I know that there are some who say this takes away from the authentic reading experience, but that would only happen if I end up re-writing a large part of the text. I am only advocating for modifying a small percentage of the document in order to gain some fluency for students. If a text is 85% within the reading ability of my students and I can modify 10%, that makes it much more readable for the students.
  • Leave alone: There is a lot of debate over the ability of students to define words from context. I think there is a balance here and I often look for places where I can leave difficult words in a text knowing that students can make good predictions on meaning based on context and situation. This requires me to take time to think about the word in that context and whether or not there are enough clues to make an inference. Done well, this can be a really positive thing for students.

Example:

Here is an article I found in a local free newspaper. The article happens to also be online, so I don’t have to scan it in. “Toronto scientist sharing research in real-time”

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Since there is a lot of images, ads, and other things on the page, I used the Readability bookmarklet to strip all of the extra parts away.

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I then took the text and ran it through Frequency Level Checker, highlighting only the words that weren’t part of Level 1.

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Glossary words:

  • Publish
  • Research
  • Lab
  • Data
  • Online
  • Blog
  • Academic

I chose these words since I’m teaching an EAP course and we are looking at the validity of online research. I would then go and either create definitions or link to the online definitions. I tend to not just use definitions when introducing new vocabulary since it takes the word out of the environment in which it is used. Collocations, variations in form and definition, and so on are all things that affect the meaning of a word and need to be taken into consideration. In this situation, some of the words appear in various forms (eg. research, researcher, researching) and alongside other words (eg. academic research, academic science).

Deleted words / text:

  • Breaking scientific ground
  • Lay language
  • Access
  • Real time
  • Inspire
  • Take note
  • Avoid duplication
  • Huntington Protein
  • Cognitive
  • Physical decline
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Glory
  • Create collaboration
  • Speed up
  • Openness
  • The norm
  • Sustain
  • Tied
  • Incremental breakthroughs
  • Obviously
  • Scooping
  • Super competitive
  • Out-compete

Many of these words were not that important to learn at this point, so I simply took them out. Some of these words could be quite useful to learn, but maybe at a different time. The goal here is fluency and some increase in vocabulary. Having too many new words and phrases takes away from the reason for the reading in the first place.

Learned from context:

  • Biomedical
  • Risk
  • Goal
  • Community

I felt that these words were important enough to leave in, but not really necessary to define. In most situations, if the student is unable to figure out the meaning from context or from using logic to piece it together (eg. Biomedical), then it doesn’t hurt the story. In these circumstances, if these words were simply taken out, the story still makes sense. I’m also making a guess that words like goal will already be known from another situation (eg. sports) and can be easily applied to this situation. This builds on their scaffolding.

The end result:

As researcher Rachel Harding works away in her Toronto lab, she’s doing something that hasn’t normally been done before.

She’s publishing her lab notes and data online along with blogging about her work in a simple way at labscribbles.com. She’s believed to be the first biomedical researcher to blog about her work as she is working on it rather than waiting for experiments to be completed or their results published.

When other researchers see what’s she’s doing, they can choose to build on it, use it to help their own work or simply make sure they are not doing the same thing as her.

“One of the biggest problems in the way academic science is done is everyone is kind of sitting in their own corner, not really talking too much to each and not sharing with everything,”

“Everything is being duplicated, and it’s the person who gets to the one point where they can publish first who becomes famous.”

The movement toward open access to scientific data movement is meant to help scientists and researchers around the world work together to make discoveries more quickly. But, this isn’t normal in the world of academic research. That’s because the money that’s needed for the work often goes to making big discoveries instead of the smaller pieces those discoveries are built upon, Harding said.

“The biggest risk about being open from the beginning is someone can come in, see what you’ve done, leave out all the experiments that didn’t work—which is going to happen—and they can reach the end goal more quickly than you” Harding said.

“But the goal here is that it isn’t a fight and we work as a community”

Text adapted from original news article written by Jessica Smith Cross

Sentence complexity, paragraph and sentence length, and text length remain about the same. There is plenty for the student to deal with here without adding too much to their plate. This whole process took a bit of time on my part, but in the end, it was much easier than trying to locate something that was perfect. I also have the flexibility of using texts that fit my students’ needs in content and language.

Appear.in – A Registration-Free Video Conferencing Webtool

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Appear.in is a no registration needed video conferencing tool that doesn’t need Adobe Flash and has apps for Android and iOS devices. It also allows for screensharing and text chat. Users can lock out unwelcome guests while still allowing access to others without needing a password. It is a fantastic tool for the classroom. Here is how it works:

Go to https://appear.in/ and click on Start. [Note: appear.in will automatically create a unique URL, but you can also choose your own. Simply type in a name in the box before clicking on Start]

At this point, you can just share the link with up to 7 other people to have a video conference. There are also a number of options, some which are important for the classroom.

Appear in lock button

Lock – This is an icon you find at the top of the page that looks like a padlock. Anyone in the room can lock the room. Those who want to enter have to “knock” when they arrive and people can choose to let them in or not. This is great for the classroom in that strangers can’t just wander into the room.

Appear in Claim button

Appear in register to claim

Claim – While Appear.in does not need registration to use, if you want to keep a room from being used by anyone else after you leave, you can register for free. Simply click on the Claim button at the top of the page and follow the instructions. It also allows you to kick out people.

Appear in Quality button

Quality – This is an icon at the top of the page that looks like a gradient box. The default quality is Good, but if you have low bandwidth or if the video is skipping a lot, choose Low.

Appear in Leave button

Leave – You can leave the room at any time by clicking on the Leave button at the top of the page that looks like a door. You can always re-enter by going back to the link.

Appear in chat button

Chat – There is a text chat function available by clicking on the chat icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen. It looks like a chat bubble. Keep in mind that the chat text can’t be deleted in that room.

Appear in microphone button

Muting video or audio or both – You can turn off your webcam and microphone by clicking on the microphone or camera icons found in your video box. They only appear once you start moving your microphone over your video image. Click on them again to activate them.

Appear in screen share button

Screensharing – You can share your entire screen with others or simply one of the windows that is currently open on your computer. This replaces your webcam video, so you can’t have your picture and the screen on at the same time. Simply click on the laptop icon in your video area, choose what you would like to share, and then click on Share. Click the laptop icon once again to go back to the webcam.

Appear in stickers

Stickers – You can also use a “sticker” on your video image. This is like Facebook stickers, only there are very few available. They only appear for a few seconds on your video image before going away. To access them, click on the smiley face icon in your video area and click on the icon you’d like to share.

Language classroom use:

Any time you have an online tool that students can use without having to give away private information is a win. I work with teachers who have students who are refugees and have limited access to their own computers. This gives those students access to a video conferencing tool without having to install anything on their computer such as with Skype.

There is the obvious group work usage, especially if students are working on a project from home. Students can share their screens such as with a presentation and can give it to a limited group of students instead of to the whole class. The teacher can meet with students online, especially when going over assignments.

I’m sure there are other uses which you are welcome to share in the comment section below.

Creating Digital Stories using Foxit Reader Portable

USB Drive

Image courtesy of Phil Gradwell

The other day during #LINCchat, the topic of digital storytelling came up and a few options were shared amongst the chat participants. I thought it would be good to share another option that works really well with students who have limited access to the internet. This option makes use of a free, offline portable application that can be installed on a USB drive that the student can take home with them and use on any Windows computer.

This idea uses Foxit Reader Portable, a free PDF reader that allows users to create blank PDF documents on which you can then add photos, text, audio, and video files. In the end, users can create a multimedia document that can be played by almost all PDF readers.

Students can take their own photos or locate photos online, put them together on a page, and audio record themselves telling the story. They can then save and share that story with others who can see the photos and listen to the story being read by the student. You can even have students record replies and add them to the story. Here are some of the steps:

Installing Foxit Reader Portable on a USB Drive:

  • Insert a USB drive into your computer.
  • Go to Portable Apps and click on ‘Apps’ along the top.

portable apps main menu

  • Under the ‘Office’ category heading, click on ‘Foxit Reader Portable’

office category

  • Click on the big green ‘Download’ button.

Download button

  • Once it has finished downloading, double-click on the installer, and follow the instructions in the installer. Make sure your choose the USB Drive as the place you would like to install it.

Create a new document: 

  • You can create a new blank page by clicking on the ‘Create a Blank PDF’ button in the top-left corner of the page, or you can click on File -> Create -> Blank -> Create a PDF from a blank page.

Create a blank document button

Create a blank document menu

Adding a picture: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Image Annotation’ button on the far right.

Image Annotation button

  • Click and drag a box on the blank page where you would like the photo to be. The larger you make the box, the bigger the picture will be on the page.

Insert an image box

  • A box will appear. Click on the ‘Browse’ button, find your file using the file manager, and click on ‘Open’ and then ‘OK’.

Add an image

  • If you would like to resize the photo, click on the ‘Select Annotation’ button located under the ‘Home’ tab, then click on the photo. Move the red dots surrounding the photo to resize the photo. Click and drag the photo to move it around the page.

Select Annotation Button

resize photo

Adding an audio file: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Audio & Video’ button on the far right.

Add an audio file

  • Click and drag a box on the blank page where you would like the audio file to be.
  • A box will appear. Click on the ‘Browse’ button, find your file using the file manager, and click on ‘Open’ and then ‘OK’.

load an audio file

Playing the audio file: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Hand’ button on the far left and then click in the box where the audio file is.

hand button

  • A box will appear asking for your permission to play the file. Check the box ‘Remember choice until I close the document’ and then click on ‘Play’.

audio consent

  • The audio will continue to play until it the file is completed. If you would like to stop it earlier, simply click on the ‘Select Annotation’ button under the ‘Home’ tab.

Finding free photos: 

  • A great place to find free public domain images is Pixabay. All of these photos are free to download and use without having to give attribution. You also do not need to have an account.

Creating photos: 

  • There are so many ways that students can create images that can be added to the document. Here are some ideas:
    • Phones: Use the camera on your phone to take photos and then transfer to your computer using a USB cable.
    • Online: Use Pixlr Express to take photos using your webcam and then add effects, borders, text, and more before downloading to your computer.
    • Windows 8 and above: Use the Camera app to take photos using your webcam.
    • Mac: Use Photo Booth to take photos using your webcam.
    • Screenshots: Using Snipping Tool on Windows or keyboard shortcuts on a Mac.

Recording audio: 

  • There are a number of options for recording audio files. Here are some online and offline options:
    • Online: Use SpeakPipe Voice Recorder.
    • Portable App: You can download and use Audacity Portable or WaveShop Portable.
    • Windows (built-in): Locate Sound Recorder or Voice Recorder on your computer.
    • Phone: Use the voice recorder function on your phone and then download to your computer.
    • Voice recorder: There are a number of cheap music players that you can buy that record audio and then download to the computer through USB.
    • Mac: Use QuickTime Player on your computer.

Some ideas for using it in the classroom: 

  • Students create a personal story with narration such as about where they are from, their daily life, or an event in their life.
  • One student puts together a series of images and another student narrates a fictional story using the images.
  • Students can create a dialog using one image. Each students posts audio comments on the shared document and listens to what others had to say.
  • Pictures and photos are put on a document in the wrong order and students need to match the proper image and text combinations.
  • Students in groups have a discussion on a topic and audio record that discussion. All of the groups then post their audio file on one class page which gets shared with everyone.
  • For students who can’t make it to a class due to other obligations, teachers add audio files to PDF handouts so students can work on their own before the next class.
  • Students create dual-language stories with their first language. Students write and record  the story in English and their first language.

Update on VideoANT: A free video annotation tool

videoant update

One of my favourite video tools to use with my students is VideoANT, a free video annotation tool. I have written about it before, but just the other day they updated the interface and made a few other changes. I thought it would be good to do a new review of VideoANT and how it could be used in the classroom.

Registration

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While VideoANT does require registration using either your Facebook or Google account, you can also use the Guest Account option by simply providing an email address. The difference between a full and guest account is the ‘Ant Farm’, a single page that keeps track of all of your projects. A full account gives you access to your Ant Farm, but a guest account only sends an email of a link to your project. To be honest, this isn’t a big deal since I usually keep track of my projects on my own. I encourage my students to use a fake email address, as long as it has an @ symbol and a domain extension (ex. .com). This becomes their ‘username’ for annotations as well.

Another change to registration is the removal of the Twitter account option. Supposedly this has to do with email access by VideoANT.

Adding a Video

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This has been simplified and has removed the option to add your own name to the video. It simply uses the name provided by YouTube or the filename of your hosted video. I have used videos hosted on my own server before, but for most people, the YouTube option is what will be used. Simply add the URL of the video and click on ‘Load’.

The Video Player

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Once you have added a video, the player window will open. You will find the title at the top of the page and the controller at the bottom of the page. This is a noticeable change from the previous player which had the player along the top of the screen. There is also a change in the button to add annotations. Once the video is playing, simply click on the button just to the right of the time display that looks like a chat symbol with a video in the middle. This will automatically pause the video and you will be able to add an annotation.

You also have the option of turning on the closed captioning of the video, something that wasn’t there before. Simply click on the CC button to toggle the captions on or off.

The Annotation and Comment Tools

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Once you click on the annotation button, a box appears beside the video where you can add some text. Simply put a title in the Subject box and your longer comment in the Content box before clicking on ‘Save’. This really hasn’t changed much from the previous version.

videoant5

Once you have added your annotation, the video will start up again and the annotation will appear with the content to right of the video. If you would like to skip to the section of the video where the annotation was added, simply click on the grey time button on the right side (ex. the 0:03 button on the image above). If you would like to add a comment to that annotation, your can click on the ‘Respond’ button on the bottom of the box.

videoant6

Once you have clicked on the ‘Respond’ button, a comment box will appear. Simple add your comment and click on ‘Save Response’. Your message will now appear below the original annotation.

Usage

I have used VideoANT for a number of things. Here are some ideas to get your started:

  • Bookmarking sections of the video: I mark the start of the section I would like my students to watch and add the questions in the ‘Content’ section of the annotation. Students then click on the time marker and watch that part of the video. They can then add their responses/answers by clicking on the ‘Respond’ button.
  • Video slideshows: Students make a screencast of their slide presentation and then share it with other students who can then comment on things. I encourage students to add ‘audience participation’ questions to their presentation so students can add comments using the annotation tool.
  • Mini lessons: I make a short video lesson and then post it for students to watch and add questions and even writing practice in the annotation.
  • Group projects: Students in groups watch the video separately, adding their comments so they can then come together in class to discuss their findings.
  • Transcripts: Some videos on YouTube have transcripts, but many don’t. You can add your own transcripts this way by adding your annotation before the text in the video.

I am sure you could find some other uses based on these ideas, so feel free to share them below.

Corpus and the Principles of Good Design

design

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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