Budget cuts being what they are, librarians need to find creative and free ways to enhance their library instruction classes. There are many different free tools available for anyone with an Internet connection and a sense of adventure. This article will cover nine free technology tools and explain how we are using them to keep students engaged during instruction sessions.
Prezi (http://prezi.com/) is an online, Flash-based tool for creating presentations. There is nothing to download and install, since the presentations are created and housed online. Prezi gives users the opportunity to create presentations on an infinite canvas, without the limitations inherent in PowerPoint slides. This canvas allows one to create a type of mind map that enables the audience to connect the different concepts being presented. Prezi permits loading images, video, audio, and PDF files onto this canvas, creating a multimedia experience. It gives users the ability to zoom in and out of the canvas, which helps people see the “big picture” of the presentation along with all the details the creator wishes to highlight.
Getting started with Prezi is easy. Simply go to http://prezi.com/ and click on the “Sign up” button in the upper right corner of the page. Prezi offers two free account options. First, there’s a personal account that is free to anyone. It provides one hundred MB of storage space on the Prezi site and access to Prezi’s offline player. The offline player permits downloading a finished prezi and presenting it in an environment that does not have Internet access. The second free account option is only available to people with education credentials, who are employed at a college, university, or K-12 institution. The EDU Enjoy account includes five hundred MB of storage space on the Prezi site as well as access to the offline player. Prezi is currently beta-testing a community site designed for educators. This site is called Prezi U, and it should be going live soon.
After setting up an account, one can begin creating presentations. The “Learn” tab (http://prezi.com/learn/) is the place to start for those unfamiliar with Prezi. This page offers tutorial videos and “cheat sheets” that are very useful to Prezi novices. The Prezi Manual, which can be searched by topic or keyword, can also be accessed here.
The Learn tab also provides links to Prezi’s social media sites. These sites are a great way to keep up with what is going on at Prezi. The Prezi blog (http://blog.prezi.com/) is the best way to keep up with what changes are being made to the site. Prezi also has a Facebook page and two Twitter accounts. These sites also give Prezi feedback from users. I have observed cases of requested changes being implemented by the Prezi staff. They are very responsive to their growing community, and their social media presence is a testament to this.
My experience with Prezi has taught me a few things that I would like to pass on. First, go to the Prezi site and look at some of the prezis created by Adam Somlai-Fischer, cofounder and head of design. Somlai-Fischer offers some excellent tips on how to create and present an effective prezi. Next, Prezi has no spellcheck. Always proofread the prezi before presenting it. Third, wireless presenters will work with Prezi as long as one is not presenting in fullscreen mode. For these to work, one must show the prezi in the browser window. The same goes with hyperlinks — use the browser window, not full-screen mode, to get a hyperlink to open in a new window or tab. Finally, I am frequently asked how much memory an average prezi takes up. It has been my experience that a single prezi does not take up very much memory. I currently have thirty prezis saved to my account, and I am only using 20 percent of my five hundred MB allotment.
I started using Prezi in my instruction classes because it offers a natural and memorable way to present information. It also allows one to be more creative. The dimensions of PowerPoint slides no longer bind the presentation. Files don’t need to be scaled down, since they will fit on Prezi’s infinite canvas. I have received lots of positive feedback from professors in whose classes I have used Prezi. Students seem to pay more attention when I teach from a prezi. Prezis seem to catch their attention better than LibGuides.
Another tool I’ve been using in my instruction classes is Mindomo (http://www.mindomo.com/), an online mind-mapping site that allows one to customize the font, color, and layout of mind maps. Users can also add icons, images, and audio or embed video into the maps. The free account includes a limit of three maps. It allows realtime collaboration and the sharing of mind maps. Also, in Mindomo, these maps are very customizable, supporting video, audio, or images. On the other hand, users cannot upload media from their own computers into the free account. These items must come from YouTube, Flickr, or some similar site.
Another mind-mapping tool I like to use in instruction is Bubbl.us (http://bubbl.us/), an online brainstorming site. Like Mindomo, the free account comes with a limit of three maps, or “sheets,” in the Bubbl.us vocabulary. One can also share sheets with other Bubbl.us users, but this tool is not as customizable as Mindomo. Users cannot add images, video, or audio. It has a very simple interface, and one can only customize the bubble size and color. Bubbl.us only supports a very basic mind map without the added flair.
I like to use Mindomo or Bubbl.us in my keyword exercises. They provide great visual aids to show the students how they can take keywords from their topic sentences and then come up with synonyms from those keywords. This allows students to see how terms for research are derived from topic sentences.
Lino (http://en.linoit.com/) is a service for the creation of online canvases, which can then be covered with sticky notes. These look like traditional sticky notes, but one can also add digital media “stickies,” such as embedded You-Tube videos, images, links to files, and more. After creating an account, a user can create a multitude of these canvases and start posting. Lino has many potential uses for instruction, because canvases can be made publicly accessible for collaborative sticky creation.
When using Lino, make sure each canvas has the settings desired. Will guests be able to post their own stickies? Should the canvas be made available to those searching public stickies? Stickies from public canvases tend to show up in about fifteen-second intervals — be patient or have another activity going. Be logged into Lino before using it in front of a group in order to move stickies around on the canvas — otherwise they will be posted all over one another. For those who love Lino, there is a premium version that allows a lot more storage space — from fifty MB to one GB a month. It removes the Lino branding and advertisements, as well as giving users the ability to restore stickies that were “peeled off” more than seven days ago. The cost is $2.99 per month or $29 per year.
I have found Lino to be particularly useful for interacting with the students in my one-shot instruction sessions. In general, I have used Lino by creating a publicly visible canvas that can be posted to by anyone who views it. However, I do not list my canvas in the “public canvases,” so it cannot be found by accident. After adjusting settings, I embed a link to the canvas in the class’s LibGuide. I start the session by asking the students a preliminary question via sticky, such as, “What is your topic?” or “What do you want to learn today?” The students really seem to enjoy seeing their responses and those of their classmates showing up on the screen in almost real time. Lino has additional potential as a brainstorming tool — just ask students to post their keyword choices and then discuss the best options.
Jing (http://www.techsmith.com/jing.html) is a free screencasting tool from TechSmith, the makers of Camtasia. With it, one can easily capture images and video from the computer screen and then share those captures with others. After installation, Jing is always running in the background; it displays as a small yellow ball of sunshine at the edge of the monitor. Quickly draw the area desired, select “image” or “video,” and then capture. Upon completion, one can mark up images with text, arrows, and boxes and finally choose to either upload the capture to Screencast.com for immediate sharing by URL, save it as a PNG file, or copy it into another document.
Be sure to create a Screencast. com account during the set-up of Jing — this is free, and greatly enhances Jing’s sharing usefulness. However, to create longer videos, or edit videos, Jing will not be enough. I would suggest purchasing Camtasia or Snagit, both from TechSmith.
A handy upgrade from free Jing, Jing Pro only costs $14.95 per year and includes Webcam recording, instant sharing to YouTube, and a smaller video format, MPEG-4.
Jing has become extremely useful for showing and sharing with patrons on chat reference. I feel they can get more out of what I’m doing this way than when I merely feed searches to them. I have also created short videos to instruct other staff members on how to do certain things on the computer. Producing the how-to document and presentation got so much easier with this little program. Creating screen image captures, marking them, and then copying them right into my document or presentation has become so much quicker — no “print screen,” no mark-up in another program. Additionally, since we do not have the image package in our Lib-Guides account, uploading images to Screencast.com quickly and easily solved the problem of importing an image via URL.
With Join.Me (https://join.me/), users can share their screens with others, take control of another screen, or share control of their own screens. Doing this involves merely visiting the Join.Me website and clicking “Share.” After a small program downloads and runs, a small menu appears at the top of the monitor with a link to send access to one’s screen to others. When recipients open the link, they’ll get a real-time view of what the sender sees. The menu also has options to request or share access to one’s screen. The software can additionally be used as a teleconferencing tool, as it provides a long-distance access number.
Prior to sharing a screen, check to be sure that everything visible is something the audience should see. After each session, Join.Me offers the option to create a desktop shortcut that grants quicker loading next time. The professional version of Join.Me could serve as a replacement for WebEx and similar programs. With it, one can schedule meetings in advance as well as send invitations to them. One can also pass the role of presenter to any participant and enjoy more control over what people see. This version is $19 a month or $149 a year.
I like this tool for nontraditional instruction. Predominately, I use it in chat reference, when Jing just will not do, or if a student is having a really difficult time navigating the website. Join.Me has also been helpful as a tool for collaboration with other librarians and could be applied to lots of long-distance technology interactions.
Poll Everywhere (http://www.polleverywhere.com) is an audience-response tool that allows one to gather real-time responses without clickers. Ask a multiple choice or open-ended question, and participants can respond via text message, Twitter, or the web.
Sign in with an .edu email address to get the Higher Ed Free version, which allows one to receive up to forty responses per poll and an unlimited number of polls. (The regular free version is limited to thirty responses per poll.) There is no response moderation for the free version. Responses appear as they are entered, so be prepared when asking an open-ended question. Also, for the free version, there is no tech support beyond the FAQ page. Viewing and receiving responses does require an Internet connection, so have a backup plan just in case.
I like to use Poll Everywhere for quick in-class polls, such as a pretest or posttest, or to ask something funny to make the students feel more comfortable. It can break the ice at a meeting or workshop or provide feedback during or after a session. Use it to gather information from the students. For example, ask them what their research topic is, what questions they still have, what they want to get out of their library session, etc. Poll Everywhere is also a great tool for real-time assessment. During a session, one can ask questions to gauge how well students understand the concepts being covered.
Google Forms is one of the many free tools available through Google Docs (http://docs.google.com). Forms allow one to create an online form with a variety of question types. The user can make the form public, share the link, or embed it into a webpage. All the responses are collected in a Google Spreadsheet.
To create a form, one must have a Google account; the form can then be shared with or edited by anyone who has a Google account. Non-Google users can view the form or responses, but will not be able to make changes. One can create an unlimited number of forms, but the number of responses depends on the number of questions and respondents, as the spreadsheet can be, at most, 200,000 cells. The form can be embedded in a webpage or LibGuide; or, to share the link for users to access the form, make the form “public” under “Settings.” There are a limited number of question types and themes to choose from, and the data analysis within Google Docs is also limited. From the spreadsheet, one can create a summary of results, but it is very basic, limited to pie charts and transcripts of text questions. However, the results can be exported to Excel.
Use Google Forms to create a pretest or posttest to assess student learning outcomes. Create a form to gather feedback after class from students or faculty or to collect information from students to follow up with them after the session. Use a form to keep track of RSVPs for a workshop and to survey participants before a workshop or class.
Evernote (http://www.evernote.com) is a note-taking program that has desktop (both Mac and PC), web, and mobile versions. Notes created in any of these platforms can be synced across all platforms. In addition to creating text notes, one can grab web clips, photos, audio, PDFs, and more and add them to a personal Evernote library. The user can add tags and create different notebooks, and they are all searchable.
The free version provides a sixty-MB upload allowance each month. This is not the total amount of storage, just how much one can add each month. Individual notes can be up to twenty-five MB, and a user can have up to 250 synced notebooks, 10,000 tags, and up to 100,000 notes. There is no limit to the number of local (not synced) notebooks.
I use Evernote primarily as a way to store information for classes I teach. I write my notes in the program and attach or copy and paste the syllabus or assignment for the class, handouts, and other documents. Then, the next time I teach the class, all I have to do is pull up the note to have all the information where I can easily edit and reuse it. During class, I keep the note up on my iPad to keep me on track. One could also do this the low-tech way and print them out. Those who want to archive old notes can simply take a picture and add it to their Evernote libraries. Students could use Evernote to keep track of their research; they could create notes and notebooks for individual projects they’re working on, then store links to articles, save PDFs, create outlines, etc.
There are many free applications out there to add spice and variety to library instruction. The nine tools we have covered will assist in creating presentations and visual aids, interacting with students, and polling or assessing classes. These free alternatives are a welcome addition for any library classroom. Do not take our word for it, though. Try some of these tools out for yourself. You will not be disappointed with the results.
Jennifer Resor Whicker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reference/instruction librarian at Radford University’s McConnell Library. She received her MLIS from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research interests include instructional technology, information literacy, and outreach.
Kathy Shields (email@example.com) currently serves as the head of Reference and Instructional Services at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. She received her MLIS from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also cowrote a chapter for the recently published book The Generation X Librarian (McFarland, 2011).
Amy Chadwell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the lead librarian for the University Center Learning Commons at High Point University. She received her MLIS from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Recent accomplishments include an article titled “Meeting Students Where They Are” in North Carolina Libraries.