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This presentation and video updates an article I posted on LinkedIn (10 Productive Hacks and Gadgets for The Online Learning Professor).

Do you ever feel like you are in need of a jetpack, but all around are boulders? Technology promises to make education cheaper, faster, better! However, most educators are faced with the Sisyphean task of discovering the right technology in an endless landscape in which the technology constantly changes, is more expensive than expected, and perhaps fails completely in actually being useful.

Here, then, are some relatively simple hacks and gadgets the online learning professor can adapt into her or his daily practices.

1: Turning your iPad into a second screen for your laptop

The stereotypical online professor retires to a multi-monitor technocave to grade. On one screen student work is displayed; on the other screen the professor efficiently provides guidance and encouragement. However, the same stereotypical online professor travels the globe with a laptop, attending conferences and just maybe teaching from the beach. Here the single screen becomes a frustrating limit, forcing the professor to toggle between applications, or attempt to cram open windows into a tightly constrained environment. Rather than endure this pain, the savvy online professor can connect an iPad to a laptop via Lightning cable, and convert the iPad into an extended desktop.

The software that does this is Duet (, which handily works on both Mac and PC. The client for Mac and PC is a free download, and the iOS app is about $20.

2: Bringing videoconferencing to a classroom on the fly

The Skype for Web plug-in ( allows you run Skype directly from within most modern web browsers, but a safer plan is to install Skype Portable ( on a USB drive and carry a webcam like the Logitech C920. You can then plug these two devices into classroom PCs without having to worry about administrator access and passwords.

3: Editing and converting video for free

At some point, you will have to edit or convert videos. The perfect (free) program for simple edits and conversion is MPEG Streamclip (, which has versions for both Mac and PC. The editing capabilities are sufficient to cut, copy, and paste clips, but the more transformative feature is the ability to convert video into pretty much every known format and screen dimension, with the added ability of (sometimes) downloading video from sites like YouTube.

You can also use the free programs that come bundled with your computer operating system—iMovie for Mac, and Movie Maker (cancelled, and to be replaced by Story Remix) for Windows—although these programs do not have as rich format conversion options as MPEG Streamclip.

4: Transcribing audio and video for free

Every professor has a collection of audio and video files that should be transcribed. These files might be interviews, waiting to be transformed into published works, or lecture material that needs to be made accessible to students with disabilities. Historically, the process of transcribing has been both cumbersome and costly, but YouTube has vastly improved the options for educators.

The process is essentially the same for both audio and video: upload a video to YouTube, and YouTube will automatically create a transcript that you can edit and download. YouTube will not accept an ordinary audio file, but you can get around this by using iMovie, Movie Maker, or Story Remix to merge your audio file with an image and then export as video. The automated transcripts that YouTube creates are largely accurate, but do need some editing. Thankfully, the editing interface is efficient and intuitive.

At this point, you have the option to download the transcript in one of three common formats (.vtt, .srt, and .sbv). These files are not plain text and need to have timing information and metadata stripped out if the actual text is required. The easiest way to make this text usable is to open the .srt file in a subtitle editor and export the transcript as a .txt file. Aegisub ( is a free editor that works on both Mac and PC. The steps to follow are:

1. Convert audio file to .m4v
2. Upload .m4v to YouTube
3. Edit and correct the automated subtitles that YoutTube creates
4. Download the .srt filer
5. Open the .srt file in Aegisub
6. Export as Plain-Text (*.txt)

5: Screencasting for free

There are several well-designed screencasting programs for Mac and PC (such as Screenflow or Camtasia) that are available to purchase, but there are also quick and easy ways to do basic recording from your computer desktop for free.

On the Mac, the easiest way to do this is via QuickTime. QuickTime is already installed and can be found in the Applications folder. Simply launch QuickTime and then click on “Choose File” and “New Screen Recording.” You can also use the same program to record from an iPad or iPhone, connected by your Lightning cable. If you need to edit the recording, you can use MPEG Streamclip or iMovie.

Windows 10 does have the ability to screencast via the built-in Xbox Game Bar, an application designed for the recording and sharing of clips from exploits in games. However, the interface is designed around recording a particular single-screen window or applications. Occasionally Game Bar results in failed screencast recordings. Bold users can attempt to use Game Bar to screencast, but perhaps a safer course of action is to download the free VLC media player ( and use the Capture Desktop mode.

Chromebook users may find Screencastify ( their best option to screencast.

6: Recording your classroom lectures

I carry a Sansa Clip with me at all times. The Sansa Clip is a small MP3 player with an integrated audio recorder and FM radio. I believe this to be about the best all-purpose device for recording audio in the classroom. The Sansa Clip works as my backup device; if traditional classroom recording methods fail, I at least have a high-quality audio recording with me.

The Sansa Clip can be affixed to a shirt or jacket, thus allowing the presenter to walk around without fear of moving out of recording range. The Sansa Clip has the capacity to record many hours of content. Recordings are saved as high-quality WAV files and can be imported onto a computer via a USB cable. The USB connection charges the Sansa Clip’s battery. Typically, you can expect somewhere between 12 to 15 hours of recording time on a full charge. I have some older presentations that discuss the Sansa Clip and recording in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the latest Sansa Clips (Sport and Jam) no longer have the recording ability, but older models are available to purchase online.

7: Surviving a classroom with no WiFi

It has happened to all of us—you are at a conference, a hotel, or teaching in a new classroom. There is an Ethernet connection in the room, but WiFi is not available. You may be traveling with a 30-foot-long Ethernet cable, but chances are this is not the case. You could use your smartphone as a hotspot, but an easier option is to invest in a cheap RAVPower FileHub Plus or HooToo TripMate Elite wireless travel router. These battery-powered routers create their own WiFi networks and can be used to bridge an existing Ethernet connection as well as to share files if you plug in a USB drive.

8: Improving the quality of your email and discussion board responses

Each time I teach a class, I tell my students to post on the discussion board what they would normally ask me via email. The exception to this is when the question is personal, and best served by email, or requires an immediate response. I have found that this greatly reduces time answering repetitive questions, and the answers I and the students post create more presence online.

My practice is to copy my responses to a Cloud-based note-taking app like Evernote or OneNote and tag these responses with keywords for later retrieval. If a similar question comes up in another course, I can quickly find my earlier response and then use that in my reply. Every time I repurpose content, I make a note of it—the more frequent notes suggesting that I should better clarify comments in the course syllabus, content, or FAQs.

For discussion board content that will be graded, I provide a simple three-point rubric (the equivalent of Good/Better/Best). This greatly simplifies and speeds up grading. To provide a structured example of what I am looking for in the class discussion, I share an anonymized perfect post from a student in an earlier class. I then reduce the quality of student example to show what I consider lesser responses.

When I want the students to demonstrate originality, I configure the discussion board to only allow the viewing of other student work after a first post is made.

However, all this structure does not guarantee that students will be closely reading the posts of other students. To incentivize students, I do two things: I provide a summary of the posts that indicates where the discussion was most on target, and then I base some of my midterm and final exam questions on the graded discussion.

9: Leveraging RSS and Twitter to keep you and your students better informed

My daily routine starts with a quick review of my RSS aggregator. Here I have several categories of newsfeeds, along with some scripts that grab content from customized Twitter lists and searches. Rather than having to visit several websites, the RSS aggregator places all this content in one easily viewable location. Then, when I see something that is worthy of sharing with my students, I can simply click on a button to pass on via email, Twitter, or Evernote.

My particular practice here is Feedly ( as the RSS aggregator service and Reeder ( as the desktop and mobile client that improves the interface and sharing options. However, Feedly also has its own apps for iOS and Android.


10: Using animated GIFs to spruce up your course (within reason)

Occasionally you may find a need to add a touch of levity to your communication, be it via email, Twitter, or your Learning Management System. Animated GIFs can be your friend here—these are short videos encapsulated in an image file that can be shared without the concern that the receiving party will not be able to play them due to file format issues.

Giphy ( is an easy-to-use repository of videos in which you can search (or waste time) for the right meme to share. It also has straightforward ways to copy, download or share with your students.

The service also has the ability for you to upload a video that you have created and convert this into an animated GIF to share.
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