10 Nifty Technology Tools for Communication, Design, Presentations, and More

I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  I love it because in many ways it makes communication, collaboration, and staying organized so much easier.  I hate it because choosing, learning, and using an unfamiliar technology is a huge investment of time – time that I could be spending getting my current work done.  Perhaps you can relate? 

Despite this, I love learning new things, so I'm always on the lookout for new tricks to help me be more productive and creative.  To kick off our first OWHE Top Ten Feature, I am sharing ten technology tools that I’ve found to be helpful, time-saving, and even fun.  Since most of us in education have limited budgets (or no budgets at all), I’m including only tools with good “free account” options or those already widely available.  I hope you’ll find these tools useful and discover interesting ways to apply them.

As a quick disclaimer, this is my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinions of organizations I am affiliated with.  I am not connected with any of the companies whose tools I’ve included and cannot guarantee that availability, pricing, or features won’t change in the future.

1. Painless Videoconferencing with Zoom

My work with the University Innovation Alliance involves collaborating with 11 public universities spread all over the country.  That means a lot of videoconferences.  Our group tested out various tools for videoconferencing before finally landing on Zoom, my favorite by far.  It’s a personal virtual meeting room that always exists at the same URL link. It supports many users at consistent video quality from my experience with 10+ colleagues in different locations.  It’s easy to invite others to the meeting since users don’t need to have accounts and can join via phone or computer.  I recently learned that the OWHE Board uses Zoom, so it seems others like it too!  https://zoom.us/

2. Easy Mobile Communication with GroupMe

I’ve found there is a fine line between engaging and annoying with group communication via texting and email.  Five, ten, twenty reply-all messages later, it’s easy to forget the original question!  One tool I love for on-the-go communication with groups is GroupMe group text messaging.  It works great for keeping in contact with my colleagues during conferences (Anyone want to grab dinner? What 1pm sessions are you all going to?).  You can participate via smartphone app, from a computer, or even via SMS text messaging on any cell phone.  Muting conversations and keeping your phone number private are advantages of using GroupMe over standard texting.  The latter feature is helpful for communicating with students, with whom you might not feel comfortable sharing your personal cell number.  https://groupme.com/en-US/

3. Custom Communication with Outlook Mail Merge Attachment

This tool seems somewhat random but has saved me serious time when sending mass email communications.  I love using mail merge to send customized emails quickly to lists of people. (If you’re not familiar with the joys of mail merge, check out a tutorial here.)  However, I was completely flummoxed when I needed to attach a PDF to each of the emails.  Was I going to have to write 200 separate emails?!?  Thankfully, I found this free software tool, which you download as a .zip file and run on your computer.  The clear instructions on the website simplify the a couple extra steps added to the mail merge.  http://omma.sourceforge.net/

4. Snazzy Design with Canva

I’m not a graphic designer, but for as many posters, handouts, and slide decks I’ve created I often wish I was!  Thankfully, a colleague who makes beautiful event posters shared her secret with me: an online design tool called Canva.  Brochures, reports, Facebook event covers – you can design them all in Canva.  I especially appreciate their social media templates since you need exact sizes for those to look right.  https://www.canva.com/

5. Neat Infographics with Piktochart

Similar to Canva but still unique is Piktochart, which is the best tool I’ve found for creating infographics as a memorable and eye-catching way to share information.  Piktochart has features for including charts, graphs, and data in your infographic as well as a variety of icons.  Their “Inspire Me” section with examples from others users gave me ideas about how I might use infographic visuals in my work.  https://piktochart.com/

6. Versatile Visuals with PowerPoint

Design tools are great, but when I already have a vision and just need a way to create it, I open Microsoft PowerPoint.  Best known for presentations, PowerPoint (PPT) is also great for creating all types of visuals using combinations of shapes, text boxes, and images.  Just start a blank presentation and get creating!  Basic shapes and connecting lines are great for making flowcharts such as in process mapping.  If I’m unsure how I want to display information, I often type the text as bullets in PPT’s SmartArt feature, then try out a bunch of the standard options until I find one that’s close.  From there you can convert the SmartArt graphic into shapes to customize further.  PPT is also great for quickly cropping, resizing, and recoloring existing images.  As part of the Microsoft Office Suite, PPT is already widely available to most education professionals.

7. Straightforward Response Gathering with Survey Tools

You are likely already familiar with online survey tools like Qualtrics, Survey Monkey, and Google Forms.  They are great for things other than surveys too!  I’ve used these tools for volunteer shift sign-ups, event RSVPs, and collecting ideas in advance of brainstorm sessions.  Any time I’m gathering information from more than a few people, setting up and sending the link to a quick survey saves me lots of time.  It’s much easier to download the survey results in a spreadsheet than to sift through email responses.  The structure of a survey also encourages people to answer all of your questions, not just the first one.  Some tools are available free (like Google Forms), and many higher education institutions have a license for a survey tool.

8. Fun Task Management with Habitica

About a year ago, I was getting bored of my personal to-do list and consequently getting behind on tasks at home. Researching free productivity tools to find a new way to keep myself accountable, I happened upon Habitica, a fun, nerdy gamified to-do list modeled after role-playing games (think Dungeons and Dragons here).  As you check off your daily tasks, to-dos, and/or habits in the smartphone app or web version, your avatar earns experience points and gold.  Sounds silly but it’s been working for me to stay on track with fitness goals and household tasks, which helps me be more productive at work.  My avatar is now a level 15 warrior with a pink pet dragon – all from attending step aerobics class, doing dishes, and feeding my (real life) pet cat.  https://habitica.com/

9. Engaged Audiences with Kahoot!

One of my new favorites is Kahoot!, a platform for learning games that you can embed into presentations to ask questions and get responses electronically from the audience.  Participants use their own mobile devices and computers to respond.  Although designed primarily for K-12 classrooms, I’ve seen it used in conference and training presentations with professionals who didn’t seem to mind the bright colors and simple format at all.  Accounts are free for educators.  https://kahoot.com/

10. Insightful Reflection with Online Journaling Apps

I’ve committed to writing a journal several times but always seem to neglect it when life gets busy.  When I started a new job three years ago, I decided to try again – this time utilizing technology to make it easy to jot down a note any time any place and setting realistic expectations that I’d write an entry periodically when faced with a challenge, change, or new experience.  I’m proud to say this time journaling has stuck, and it is encouraging to look back and see my progress as a professional.  There are numerous online journaling tools.  I use the Journey Android app on my phone and desktop but have also heard good things about Penzu and Evernote which are iOS and Android compatible.  https://journey.cloud/  https://evernote.com/  https://penzu.com/

Through learning to use these tools, my love-hate relationship with technology is shifting towards love.  I know there are many other helpful tools and would love to hear about them!  OWHE Community – What are your favorite technology tools or those you find helpful in your work?  Which of these tools are you excited to try out?  Please share with us in the comments.

Alex Aljets is the University Innovation Alliance Fellow at Oregon State University.  She is on Twitter as @alexaljets and LinkedIn or can be reached via email at Alex.Aljets@oregonstate.edu.

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