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Friday, May 15, 2009

Google Wonder Wheel in Action

Earlier this week I posted a short piece about some of the new search tools that Google has rolled out. The one that impresses me the most is Wonder Wheel. I had some students try it on Thursday and they found it to be a very handy tool. If you haven't had a chance to try it, check out this short screencast of Wonder Wheel in action.

8 Ways to Build Websites (Not Blogs) for Free

I am frequently asked by colleagues and readers, "can you help me set up a blog, a wiki, or whatever?" I am not paraphrasing that question, I'm really asked to help set up a "whatever." The reason the "whatever" gets thrown in there is because teachers and people in general have heard the terms blog, wiki, website but they're not sure of the differences between them. My quick explanation of the differences is generally this; websites are good for providing a static resource of information, blogs are good for frequent updates and communication, and a wiki is great for collaborating on the creation of a reference site. I realize this is a very simplistic explanation, but many times that's all that people need to know when creating their first online presence.

Here are eight places that teachers can build and host a website for free:

Yola (formerly Synthasite) is the tool that I am currently using to build websites for my department and other departments in my high school. As I wrote in my original review of Yola an outstanding aspect of Yola is that not only is your website free, it is advertising free (unless you want advertising), and remains free regardless of how much content you add to it. This is a good thing if you plan to post a lot of audio or video content as some website builders and hosts begin to charge once you reach a certain volume content. Yola provides good tutorials and forums for first time users. I also learned first-hand that their responses to help requests are very quick.

Webs (formerly Free Webs) is another service that I have first-hand experience with in a school setting because my girlfriend (a teacher in another school district) uses it for her classes. Webs has all of the characteristics that you would expect to find in a free website platform. Websites built using Webs can include videos, calendars, polls, and a wide variety of third party widgets. Webs offers a wide variety templates and layouts to select from. For people with a higher level of comfort with technology, Webs might be a little too basic for your needs. In that case you may want to consider Snap Pages.

Snap Pages provides a free service as well as a premium service for creating your custom website. The free service has more than enough features for a teacher to set up and maintain a class website. The editing and customizing options of Snap Pages allow users to create pages that are little more clean and professional looking than some of the other companies in this market. The image resizing tool reminds me of the one found in Apple's Keynote presentation software. In fact, TechCrunch said that it's “a basic webpage designer that Apple should envy...”

Web Node is a simple way to build a website. The easy to use, drag and drop, interface makes it easy to change the look and feel of your website. For two reasons Web Node is a good tool for students to use to present and share their work with a wider audience. First, Web Node does not put any advertsing on your website. And second, the user interface is intuitive enough for most students to use on their own.

Sauropol, like other free website building and hosting platforms, is a free method for teachers to share information about their courses with parents and students. One feature that Sauropol offers that some similar services do not offer is the ability to use more than one template within your website. In other words, you're not locked into using one format for all of your content.

Weebly was the first website building tool that I ever tried. Until today, I hadn't been back to Weebly in months, but it's still just as intuitive as ever. Customizing the look, feel, and components of your Weebly website is easily done through a drag and drop editor. All of the pages on your site are automatically indexed for ease of visitor navigation. I know from first hand experience that Weebly responds quickly to emails from users.

Hipero is the latest website building tool that I have tried. After reading that Larry Ferlazzo added it to his list of the best ways to create a website, I had to try it. What impressed me most about Hipero is the selection of templates available to users. If you can't find a template you like in Hipero's collection of more than 200, you are just too picky. Like Larry said in his post about Hipero, it claims to be the easiest website builder, but I'm not sure if I agree. While Hipero is feature-rich I can't say that it is the most intuitive website builder I've used, that honor still goes to Webs and Weebly.

Last, but not least is Google Sites. Probably the biggest selling point for Google Sites is that you can integrate it with your Google account. You can also establish your Google Site as a collaborative work space. The option to set up your Google Site as a collaborative effort is nice if you teach as part of team and want all members to be able to update the site as needed.

All of these services offer some type of option for registering and hosting your site on a custom domain. What that allows you to do is drop the website builder's domain from the end of your url. For example, if I build a site using Snap Pages, in the free version my website's url will end with .snappages.com. This may not matter to you, but to some people it does.

Finally, all of the options in this list do essentially the same task, provide you with a website of your own. Some may be more intuitive to you than others. I tried them all before deciding on one for the department websites that I'm currently building for use next fall.

My Dinos - Fun, Safe Gaming Environment for Kids

My Dinos is a fun, safe gaming environment for kids under ten years old. As the name implies, My Dinos has a dinosaur theme. Kids play the game as a dinosaur that for which they choose a name. (When I tried the game I named my dinosaur "Meatball.") After selecting a name kids then choose a "Dynamal" which is essentially a baby dinosaur for which they are responsible. Throughout the game kids go on quests through time. Players can go on these quests through time on their own or form a team with other players to go on the quest. On these quests players earn shells which they can use to purchase things for their caves and for their next quest.

Applications for Education
Besides safe online fun, the purpose of My Dinos is to provide a safe environment where kids can learn online collaboration skills. Every elementary school report card I've seen has some element regarding "plays well with others." As kids grow up online it's important that they can play well with others offline and online. My Dinos provides a place for young students to learn to play well with others online.

Here are some related resources that may be of interest to you:
Ten Fun Educational Games for K-8 Students
The Math Arcade on Fun Brain
Parade of Games in Powerpoint

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