7 Answers to Frequently Asked Techie Questions

by Miguel Guhlin

“The reason I love Camtasia,” shares high school teacher Vicki Davis, “is that the codecs are great, and it gives you the ability to render for just about any platform.” A few short weeks ago, Camtasia and SnagIt were offered for free at no charge. Although I wrote about it on my blog (http://mguhlin.net), you may have missed the announcement that spread like wildfire through the educational twitter community. But there are several alternatives to TechSmith’s Camtasia. This article discusses online tools you can use to work with video and audio.

  1. How can I record how-to videos—also known as screencasts—of what I’m doing on screen for professional development sessions?
  2. How can I easily convert from one video format to another?
  3. What free tools are available to burn Cds/DVDs on Windows and Mac?
  4. What are your favorite ZIP file compression tools?
  5. How do collect data via a survey or poll?
  6. How do I share long web addresses with others as short URLs?
  7. How can I create a portable wiki that I can take notes with?

1- How can I record how-to videos—also known as screencasts—of what I’m doing on screen for professional development sessions?
Jing.com is a fun, easy to use tool to create short video tutorials that you can share as screencasts. These screencasts can be hosted online by a third party hosting solution. This free solution is a nice compromise to more expensive tools like Camtasia. Unfortunately, Jing’s default export format is Shockwave Flash (SWF), which I’ve found impossible to convert to anything else using no-cost tools. However, you can embed the SWF file on a web page to share with others. You can also use no-cost SWF players to view the file. Jing.com works on either Windows or Macintosh.


2- How can I easily convert from one video format to another?
Working with video can often be a frustrating challenge due to conversion issues. How do you get the video you downloaded off the web into a format that will work your presentation software, whether it is Powerpoint or Keynote? Or, how do you convert video so that it will work on your students’ mobile, bluetooth-enabled phone?

For the most part, you won’t have to invest in expensive conversion tools. However, there are important tools that you can use at no cost when working with video. The first is a web site, ZamZar.com. This web site not only converts video and audio files, but also helps you convert MS Office 2007 DOCX files to a usable format.

I have used ZamZar to convert docx files, videos in Flash format (FLV), MP4, MOV and, my daughter’s personal favorite, 3gp for her mobile phone. You can take a music video off of Youtube and have it in a mobile phone format fairly quickly.

Sometimes, ZamZar isn’t enough. For example, I wanted to use a video off of TeacherTube.com. I converted it to a usable format but then wanted to split the video in half, showing part of it at the beginning of a presentation. To accomplish that split, you can pay $30 for Quicktime Pro—which works on Windows or Mac—and you’ll be able to save the video out in a variety of usable formats. Another approach is to transcode part of the video using the free VLC Media Player, but this is not as intuitive and easy.

Another conversion tool that recently became available is Prism. It is video conversion software that can convert video from avi, divX, mpg, vob, wmv (Windows Media Video formats), 3gp (mobile phone format) and more into avi, asf or wmv files.


3- What free tools are available to burn Cds/DVDs on Windows and Mac?
This was a question recently posted the TCEA TEC-SIG list. Two programs come to mind, including CDBurner XP. According to the web site, CDBurnerXP is a free application to burn CDs and DVDs, including Blu-Ray and HD-DVDs. It can create CDs based on ISO files (which you get off the Web) as well as create ISOs. Another program which is free, open source—but lacks support for Blu-Ray and HD-DVDs—is InfraRecorder. You can create CDs featuring data in the form of audio, video, documents, as well as record dual-layer DVDs, ISOs and BIN/CUE disc images. Some refer to InfraRecorder as an “easy to use” tool compared to the more feature-rich CDBurner XP.

On the Macintosh side, my favorite CD burning tools include LiquidCD. Although the Macintosh OS provides some excellent built-in tools, LiquidCD is easy to use. I use it to create audio, data CDs, and it can also be used to create DVDs. LiquidCD can also burn various disc image formats such as CUE, ISO, TOAST and DMG. Though folks often prefer Toast as one-stop shopping solution for CD/DVD burning on a Mac, LiquidCD provides some nice features at no cost. If you would like some additional features, you can always pay for Disco, a low-cost alternative to Toast without all the bells-n-whistles.




4- What are your favorite ZIP applications?
Stuck with a folder full of documents or files you want to send to a friend via email? Then, one of the best ways to accomplish that is to compress and drop and all the files into ONE compressed file. Someone recently asked me, “Miguel, what are your favorite zip applications?” Over time, I have tried a variety of compression formats but keep coming back to the standard zip file compression format. Although zip compression and decompression are built-in to both Windows and Mac platforms, I find myself downloading programs that allow me to more easily work with compressed files.

On Windows computers, I immediately download one of two programs: 1) The free open source 7zip and 2) Izarc. Both programs are easy to use and provide a wealth of features.

Mac OS now comes with built-in zip (right click on a file or folder and choose ARCHIVE) capability. However, there are a variety of zip utilities you can use on the Mac. They offer the additional feature of being able to browse the contents of a zip file and decompress, or extract, that file individually. As a Mac user, I would invest in Springy Zip File Compression utility. It works great and reminds one of cross-platform zip tools.




5- How to collect data via a survey or poll?
Conducting surveys and polls is great. When I need to conduct a survey, I try to use tools that give me control of the survey data (e.g. UCCASS or Moodle’s built-in survey feature). However, sometimes that level of security just is not needed.

The hardest part about surveys is not collecting the data. Rather, it is designing the surveys and then analyzing the data. Although it would be too much to hope for to simplify both ends of the process—the design of the survey and data analysis—what if the latter could be made easier?

Here are 10 alternative online poll/survey sites you can take advantage of, all at no-cost:

6- How do I share long web addresses with others as short URLs?

Three nifty tools for shortening those long URLs are available. I like to use SnipURL, TinyURL.com or URLTea.com to get short web addresses that I can email to people or put into publications. But now, there are three I’m aware of. The bad thing with long addresses is that they get shortened—and therefore, won’t work—in some email programs. A short URL eliminates that problem.

Of the three, my favorite is SnipURL since it allows you to “rename” the URL. Instead of a hard to remember character string (1t3r), you can have people go to http://snipurl.com/whatever where “whatever” is what you type in.


7 – How can I create a portable wiki that I can take notes with?
Ever thought about using “jump” or “thumb” drive as a pre-configured device that runs applications and software not found on the host computer? I’m sure your students have. Why not put that inclination to load applications on a portable USB drive to good use? When you use a jump drive application, you or your students need not be hooked up to the Internet. All you need is a web browser to open the file on your computer.

Three exciting portable wikis—great for hyper-linked note-taking—include the following GTD Tiddly Wiki. The purpose of GTD Tiddly Wiki is to give users a single repository for their GettingThingsDone (GTD) lists and support materials so they can create/edit lists, and then print directly to 3×5 cards for use with a personal digital assistant (PDA).

Another portable wiki you can use is TiddlyWiki. It is a complete wiki in a single HTML file. It contains the entire text of the wiki, and all the JavaScript, CSS and HTML needed to be able to display it, and lets you edit it or search it, without the need of a server. Both are essentially web pages that you can open in a browser and then make changes. Finally, Wiki on a Stick is another possibility.

Don’t be afraid to try these out. . .you may be amazed at what you and your students can do.


Exploring different software and web-based tools is a must in today’s technology demanding society. I encourage you to try out some of the tools mentioned here as you need them to solve problems you may encounter, as well as share this article with friends, colleagues, students and their parents.

About the Author
Miguel Guhlin is an educator who has seen the light and advocates for GNU/Linux, Free Open Source Software in K-12 education around the world. He also happens to be currently employed as a director of Instructional Technology for a large San Antonio, Texas, USA school district. Experienced in Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux operating system, he encourages folks to consider how technology tools can enhance communication and collaboration in a global learning environment. He invites you to join the conversation via his blog at Around the Corner-mGuhlin.net (http://mguhlin.net). Drop by and leave a comment, ok?