Google into Moodle

About a year ago, I shifted my course syllabi to Google Docs as a strategy for more nimbly handling the inevitable hiccups and improvisational changes to scheduled meetings during the semester: snow days; opportunistic class visits by colleagues and other scholars; newly published research addressing course topics; etc..  As a result, any updates to syllabi are immediately available to students and other course participants.  You can read more about this here.

For similar reasons, I’ve since shifted to using Google Docs for all of my lab and other assignment instructions.  Whenever I correct a typo or tweak an assignment parameter, the changes are rendered in real time, and I don’t have to convert the doc into a PDF, upload to Moodle, and delete or replace the old version.  Fewer steps, fewer keystrokes, fewer headaches. Huzzah.

I might even consider shifting my courses entirely to Google Drive – for example, check out Ari Rotramel’s approach – but I’m a huge fan of Moodle’s online submission tools, gradebook, and quickmail features; I find all indispensable to my pursuit of less paperwork, less email, and a streamlined workflow during the semester.  But Google Drive and Moodle can happily play together.  Links to Google Docs, Sheets, and Maps are easily curated on Moodle with other course content and, when properly framed, all of these apps facilitate and enhance student collaborations in ways that are seldom afforded by other software.

Recently, in a moment of glorious nerdiness, I figured out how to take this simpatico relationship one step further, or how to display the contents of a Google Doc in Moodle.  My simple goal was to have my Google Doc syllabus display – not as a link but, rather, the actual contents – near the top of a course Moodle page.  In effect, the syllabus becomes the digital center of all digital content and workflow while retaining its autonomy as a document that can be shared with colleagues or added to a tenure or promotion file.

The path to embedding the Google Doc into Moodle is not overly complicated, but it does require a dive into various menu commands and a minor tweak to some HTML code provided by Google.  For those who take the plunge, here’s a brief video tutorial as well as some step-by-step instructions and notes:

  1. Open up your Google Doc in one tab of your browser and your course Moodle page in another.
  2. Make sure that your Google Doc is shared or, at minimum, viewable by anyone who has the link.
  3. In your Google Doc app, select “File” from the menu bar, and then select “Publish to the web”.  (Make sure you’re selecting from the menu in the Google Docs app and not the upper menu bar that belongs to your browser.)
  4. Click on the “Embed” tab in the window that opens and copy the link. If no code is displayed, press the blue “Publish” button. Copy the code, and then close this window with the “X” in the upper right.
  5. In Moodle, turn editing on, and then select “Edit topic” for one of the major topic sections of your Moodle page.
  6. You might name this section “Syllabus”.
  7. In the Summary box below, select the “<>” button which allows you to edit the HTML source code.
  8. Paste the code you copied from Google.  

Some tips and code for making more screen real estate, making the document editable in Moodle, and for loading up on bookmarked pages in the embedded Google Doc below.

Dish Up Your Syllabi with Google Docs

A couple years ago, I did away with the static PDF files and began presenting my syllabi as dynamic web pages on Moodle.  This approach allowed me to more efficiently update the parts of my courses that inevitably evolve during the semester, build in links to content on my Moodle course sites, and make a more cohesive set of online resources for my students.

And then I got a little friendlier with Google apps.  In general, I’m not a fan of web apps – I find working in browsers sometimes cumbersome – but I have to admit that Google has engineered some tools that really do make my life easier. Google Docs, in particular, is now my go-to app for all things course syllabi.

Screenshot as syllabus as a Google Doc
The Google Docs app features a convenient Outline for navigating your syllabus or assignment.

If you took my earlier advice (and even if you didn’t), here are five reasons to switch to using Google Docs for prepping and dishing your syllabi:

  1. Google Docs affords flexibility in updates, easy linking to assignments, and semester-to-semester reproducibility.  Inserting links to web resources, including other parts of your course Moodle site, is much easier in Docs than in the Moodle “page” feature.
  2. Google Docs will automatically make a table of contents for your syllabus.  How cool is that? (But you can turn it off, if you don’t think it’s cool.)
  3. Syllabi made in Google Docs are easily formatted and archivable for tenure and promotion review.
  4. Editing and formatting your syllabus in Google Doc is less complicated than the Moodle page feature.  (Many of your accumulated word processing skills are laterally transferable to the Google Doc environ.)
  5. Google Docs are easy to share with students and colleagues outside your course.  In contrast, it is often difficult and sometimes impossible to share Moodle content with folks who are not enrolled.

    Screenshot of sharing doc
    The shareable link to your Google Doc syllabus can be posted on your Moodle course site.

Next semester, try making your syllabus in a Google Doc.  Post the shareable link on your course Moodle page.  Let me know how it works out.

P-Card Accounting On the Fly (or in Vietnam)

Institutional credit cards, or purchase cards (‘p-cards’ for short), are quickly becoming part of the routine work habits of some faculty and many staff in higher education. Although the adoption of the p-card has obvious benefits to an institution, it can also create more work for more people, resulting in a net uptick in time allocated to accounting-related matters.  In an effort to reduce some of this work, most of which is attendant to digital processes, I have advocated for the use of mobile scanning apps that convert images to PDF and then archive files in the cloud.  

CamScanner is still my go-to, timesaving app for these basic tasks. At the point of purchase, I capture and upload an image of my receipt to a folder that can be easily accessed when I later reconcile expenses online. This approach saves me considerable time at the departmental copy machine, sorting email attachments, etc., but also is solid insurance against losing that precious receipt.

Google Drive screenshotHere, I offer an addendum to this strategy that may be useful to colleagues whose p-card expenses must be reconciled with more than one pot of money and/or who work closely with someone else who does much of the actual reconciling. For example, the Director of the Office of Study Away first approves my p-card expenses relating to SATA Vietnam. Given the SATA travel schedule as well as the exigencies of working in a lean country, she is skeptical (for good reason) of my ability to meet accounting cycle deadlines.  As such, she is managing the online reconciliation process. My job? Send the receipts.

Uber receiptCapitalizing on CamScanner’s agility at uploading PDF images to the cloud, I now direct all of my receipts to a shared folder on Google Drive.  In this folder, I created a dozen or so subfolders, each of which is labeled to reflect a two-week accounting period at Connecticut College. Digitized receipts are directed to the appropriate folder and easily accessed at the convenience of the Office of Study Away.

Overall, this innovation in workflow has saved us much time, time otherwise spent with redundant digital processes, such as uploading, sending, downloading, and re-saving attachments via email. This is especially so in recent weeks when I adopted Uber as a cost-saving mode of transportation in Ha Noi. SATA-related Uber rides are charged to my p-card, and the digital receipts – perhaps as many as 8-10 a week – are directed to the shared Google Drive folder.

Easing the Time Demand of P­Card Accounting

p-card post image

Higher education is rapidly transitioning to purchasing card programs as a means of streamlining the process by which services and goods are procured by employees.  With recent growth of the credit payment industry, colleges and universities are embracing purchasing cards, or “p­cards”.  P­cards are meant to reduce transaction costs, allow access to supplier discounts, eliminate delay in a reimbursement cycle, improve cash flow, and improve tracking of expenses.  All good things, except that their use may create more accounting work for faculty and staff.

In the old days, when I used my personal credit card for College-related expenses, I taped my receipts to an 8.5 x 11” sheet of paper, tapped out a few words about the nature of the charges, and sent them along to the next level of approval via campus snail mail.  Such work typically laid claim to 10­-15 minutes of my time.  The new process entails scanning individual receipts as PDF files and then uploading each to the pcard web interface.  There are also database fields to fill and comments to render for each expenditure, but it’s the process of scanning and uploading receipts that really taxes my time, especially when I  have a goodly number of receipts.  Using a campus copier/scanner, I found that pcard receipt processing now entails many more repeated steps: selecting settings on copier; sending file (more settings); retrieving file via email; saving and renaming file to appropriate file directory; uploading file to accounting interface.  Recently, I spent 30­-40 minutes processing 24 receipts.  Not good.  And my inner pessimist fears that faculty frustrations with pcard accounting will result in even more of this work getting passed along to academic and administrative assistants.  Also not good.

So, accepting that p­cards are our future (and not an excuse to slide even more work to academic assistants), I began experimenting with other PDF­ rendering technology.  Here’s what I found:

Using my iPhone and an app called CamScanner, I can shave an appreciable amount of time off the accounting process .  Specifically, time is recouped in (1) the scanning process and (2) the uploading of scanned receipts to the p­card web interface.  First, CamScanner uses the smartphone camera; I “scan” simply by taking a picture of the receipt.  Some nice little built-­in app features allow me to define the boundaries of the receipt as well as auto­-enhance the text to improve legibility.  This all takes about 8 seconds.  Second, a PDF version of the image can then be uploaded to the cloud, a nice alternative to shuttling files from my email to a desirable file directory.  I use Dropbox, but other cloud storage options are available, including Google Drive, Evernote, Box, and One Drive.  Pointing the app and uploading to your preferred file directory takes about 10 seconds.  You might add an additional 15­-20 seconds if you want to rename the file for purposes of digitally archiving the receipts.  Regardless, the smartphone approach is significantly  faster than scanning at the copy machine.

There are other smartphone apps available (e.g., GeniusScan, TinyScan), but among the handful with which I’ve experimented, CamScanner is the only free app that allows me to capture and send a PDF file to the cloud without having to pay for a “pro” version of the app.  (This said, the pro version of CamScanner affords even more possibilities and just may be your cup of tea if you seek even more complex functionality in your scanning app.)

Furthermore, I can scan from the comfort of my desk or, even better, at the point of purchase, thus shaving a little more time off the accounting process when I return home. CamScanner is available for iPhone, iPad, Android, and Windows 8 phones. If you know of other PDF scanning apps or even other digital workflow practices that ease the pain of emergent digital bureaucracies, please share in the comments below.

Social Media in Academia: Connecting with Local and Global Communities

For better or worse, social media is entrenched in the routine lives of our students, our colleagues, and the communities in which we participate. With over 70% of American Internet users engaging its pages, Facebook still dominates as the most popular social media site. Close behind, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest fall somewhere in the top 5-10 of the most trafficked social media platforms.

IMG_2073I’ve long been convinced that social media can help academic departments and centers further their various objectives through the semester. In anthropology, my home department, such objectives include forging and sustaining meaningful connections with current students and alumni as well as community partners, project collaborators, and other stakeholders. These connections ultimately depend on visibility or transparency in the various activities, curricula, and ideas constituting our department. Given our hyper-busy everyday lives, in-person connections are limited, and social media provides a solution to reaching wide audiences in a timely and effective manner.

Facebook and Twitter are our primary social media channels, each of which is used to make visible our efforts and investments in the following areas:

  • Student Research – highlighting the research accomplishments of our talented majors IMG_2175and minors, including conference presentations and publications with faculty.
  • Programming – maximizing awareness of lectures, workshops, and other programming, in our department, other departments with whom we collaborate, and in our surrounding communities;
  • Curricula – showcasing anthropology courses that push pedagogical boundaries and are part of reciprocal and collaborative partnerships in local communities;
  • Study Abroad – featuring the reflections and experiences of our majors and minors who are currently studying abroad;
  • Faculty Research – presenting the research accomplishments of our faculty, especially when such research involves students and has relevance to communities beyond our own.

All said, we’re not “power” users of social media, but we think it important to regularly photo-document our events and departmental antics. And we’re working toward a craftier use of social media to bring the experiences of our numerous majors and minors currently studying abroad back into our campus community.

IMG_2176

IMG_2074

Presenting Syllabi and Course Assignments as Pages in Moodle

The semester approaches, and I can’t help but tinker with the design of my courses. I know better than to reinvent the wheel, and much good advice has been proffered with respect to the first rule of productivity: don’t fix what’s already working. Nevertheless, my inner (and somewhat pathological) perfectionist compels me to tweak.

For me, course retooling begins with the syllabus, my touchstone for the sequence and topics of discussions I hope to nurture throughout the semester. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I craft my syllabi to be detailed précis of course content as well as quasi-legal contracts that spell out course-related protocol. As such, it’s not uncommon for my syllabi to run 10-15 pages in length, and I optimistically include a week-by-week schedule.

Optimism is usually downgraded into realism two or more weeks into the semester. Despite my best intentions, my course schedules often change midstream as I carve more time for cultivating unexpectedly brilliant conversations in the classroom and/or for my occasional failure to adequately cover a challenging topic. And sometimes I just need the flexibility to make a 90-degree turn and accommodate exploration of new ideas and topics. To this end, I usually include a caveat in my syllabus: “Schedule subject to change in subtle ways, especially when instructor geeks out over particular topics or discussions.”

The problem is that I’ll want to update the syllabus when the schedule is derailed. And sometimes I want to update the assignments to reflect new parameters or potentialities realized during our classroom discussions. But updating means that I have to pull out the MS Word document, render the edits, convert the document to a PDF, and then upload the PDF to the Moodle, possibly several times during the semester.

FIG 1So many steps! Surely, in the age of robot vacuum cleaners and self-driving cars, there must be a better way. And so there is: create and post your syllabi and assignments as “Pages” on Moodle rather than as PDF files.

Some key advantages to this approach:

• A Moodle page is more dynamic than a PDF and can be easily edited / updated throughout the semester. No, you don’t need prior training in HTML; the editor in Moodle is sufficient for most of what you need. FIG 2That said, it won’t hurt you to learn some basic HTML code (the internets are rich with help pages), and a little knowledge goes a long way in crafting easy-to-use pages that better meet your curricular goals.

• Menu links on your page allow students to quickly navigate to parts of the syllabus or assignment they want to (re)read. For example, let’s say your student wants to revisit the section addressing the relative grade value of specific assignments. By including a quick-link menu, (A) they merely need to select the appropriate option and presto (B)!

FIG 3AFIG 3B

• Content from other web sources can be linked from your assignment / syllabus page.

FIG 4This is not always possible with PDFs, especially those produced with MS Word on Macs. You may, for example, want to link to a specific Lynda.com tutorial so that students can learn the fundamentals of a data visualization app before analyzing a dataset.

• Last but not least, an editable syllabus used in a previous semester can be copied over with the rest of the course content at the outset of a new semester; you don’t have to search your hard drive for the relevant MS Word syllabus file AND you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (or relearn some forgotten HTML coolness) every year. Enough said.

For me, posting syllabi and assignments as pages has been a huge time saver and allowed a more flexible digital approach to organizing courses and sharing up-to-date information with students. Furthermore, with more demand, I can imagine future versions of Moodle featuring more built-in tools that streamline the process of creating quick-link menus, adding images, etc. In the meanwhile, should you be interested, I’m happy to share a simple template by which I create syllabi pages in Moodle.

Going Paperless V: Paperless in Practice

Chantier_de_fouilles_à_Morigny-Champigny_en_juin_2012_60In our post introducing this series, we mentioned that there are many possible tools and workflows you can employ to achieve a paperless office. We asked Anthony Graesch, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Technology Fellow, to share his favorite tools and to describe how they fit into his own workflow. Here are his recommendations.

1. ReadCube is perhaps THE go-to app for finding, organizing, and citing published research available as PDFs.  Check out this quick demo.
2. Scrivener is my go-to app for brainstorming, organizing, and executing writing projects.  This app was developed by writers for writers (~$40) and allows me to drag and drop any file – image, PDF, Word doc, etc. – into one desk space: I never have to bounce between windows, and I can annotate and organize all of the various media in situ.  Importantly, it is a word processor.  Although it is not as powerful as Word, it does exactly what it needs to do and has greater flexibility for organizing components of a writing project, whether they be ideas, chapters, articles sections, or whatever.  As such, it meets my criteria for effective workflow: (1) it is not a cloud-based app (and thus is sophisticated software and not impacted by delays attributable to refreshing web pages, overly simplified tools, etc.); (2) it keeps my attention focused on one workspace- with all project-related media accessible in one app, there is no reason to bounce around my file directory, which is usually a major source of distraction.  Lastly, I keep my Scrivener writing projects on Dropbox [cloud based storage, similar to Google Drive] and can access from either my laptop or my desktops.  Excellent workflow.

3. A stand-alone PDF annotator is Skim [available only for Mac].  When you highlight text in Skim, it automatically copies that text into a note. Later, you can search your highlighted text! Or export it as notes. And you can add comments. This allows for maximally efficient note-taking and reviewing articles for seminar, writing projects, etc. I typically recommend Skim to my students.

Image Credit: By Lionel Allorge (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons