Google Docs adds search to documents

I opened up a new Google Doc this morning and was greeted with a new Google Docs feature called Research.

Use this research tool to learn more information about the topics in your document.

WWhat is this new Research bit?ell now, this looks interesting. And potentially very useful.

At first, I thought that Google had come up with a method of extracting information from your document and using it to return relevant search results, perhaps using some kind of semantic search. Turns out, it isn’t quite that sophisticated (yet?).

But, it still looks like a useful feature as it adds search capabilities right there in the document you are working on, and makes it quite easy to add that web content directly to the document you are working on.

The search interface is a basic Google web search, with a drop down option to search for images or search for quotes. It will also return a Google map that you can embed when you do a location search.

Filter search results by licenseOne of the nice features of the search is that it adds an image license filter so you can filter search results based on usage. The options are limited (it looks like the only CC license they use allows for commercial reuse, which really will restrict the results and may be overly restrictive compared to the types of results you would get with a non-commercial use license), but it is still a nice feature that can probably easily be expanded to include the other types of CC licenses.

As I hinted at earlier when I mentioned what I hoped the search would be, you can get a sense as to where this can go, with semantic suggestions popping up based on the content you are entering into the document. Start working on a document that mentions something like the B.C. Education Plan (as I happened to be doing), and resources related to that would auto-magically appear in the search results area, perhaps using my network connections as part of the filter parameters. Which will then turn this feature into a very powerful research tool.


4 Alternative Blogging Interfaces for WordPress

I’ve been a WordPress user since the b2 days, but only lately have I begun to explore different methods of posting content to a WordPress blog. In the past, I have used the standard web interface for creating posts, with the occasional foray into using the FireFox ScribeFire plugin (more on that in just a moment).

Why alternatives? Well, it’s not that I think the standard WordPress interface is bad or poorly designed – far from it. But I am looking at alternative, streamlined ways of getting content into a site that may be more familiar to non-WordPress users.

Over the past few days I’ve been playing with alternative ways to publish content to a WordPress site, and here are 4 that I have come up with.

Using Word 2007
I really like this method, not because it is the best tool in this list, but because it is the most familiar interface for the faculty I support. Everyone is comfortable using Word and, while it won’t give you all the functionality of the web interface, it gets the job done with some nice functions in an interface that users are familiar with.

Setup is easy and straightforward and you can insert text, links tables and images, including WordArt, Symbols, Shapes and SmartArt. Blog management and organizational options are pretty minimal, but include the ability to post as a draft, and choose an existing blog category for the post. You can also open previous posts from your blog to edit.

A lack of headings in the toolbar is a frustration I have with the interface, and the reason why the subheadings for this post are appearing as 14 POINT (???) headings and not h3 tags as I would prefer. Microsoft has instead decided to put bigger and smaller buttons on the interface. This is something Microsoft has done with other html editors I’ve come across (yeah SharePoint, I’m looking at you) and it is an annoyance I find maddening. Not only is this semantically incorrect (let me make a heading a heading and a paragraph a paragraph please), but it also overrides the set CSS in the WordPress themes. It would be far better if they just left the text options as standard html tags, which would be semantically correct and would also ensure consistency in design.

That said, in terms of something my faculty will find easy to use, the Word interface seems like an early winner. And anything that helps people move away from posting links to their Word documents and posting in html is a winner with me.

By Email

Another familiar interface for my users, you can post to a WordPress blog from any email client. While this does require a bit more technical work to initially set up, you again get a composing environment that is really user friendly and familiar, especially for the slightly technophobic faculty.

This is bare bones in terms of functionality. The subject line will be used as the title of the post with the body of the email as the content of the post. All html in the email will be stripped out, and it does not support uploading attachments or images. You also cannot choose what category you want your post to appear in with the post appearing in whatever the blog default category is. This does not have the functionality of Posterous, but in terms of getting content onto the web quick and painlessly, it’s a fine alternative.


ScribeFire is a FireFox plugin that lets you post to your blog from within FireFox. This is a full featured alternative to the native web interface that has tons of features. I’ve used this in the past and, while I like it, I have found that the formatting sometimes goes a bit wonky when the post is published and the post doesn’t always look like I would expect it to with the underlying html code getting rewritten. Still, you can pretty well do anything with this tool that you can with the WordPress interface. It’s handy when you come across something on the web that you want to blog about quickly, or if you have no eb access but still want to compose a post to publish when you reconnect.

Google Docs

Cole Camplese sent me scurrying down this path a few days ago when he tweeted a test post (which looks like it has since been deleted). So I gave it a shot and found out that you can post directly to WordPress from Google Docs. In the example from a few days ago, I included an image pulled from my Flickr account and a drawing done in Google Docs. Connecting was pretty straightforward, however there was no specific WordPress API hook. Instead, I used the Moveable Type API, which connected, but may explain why when I posted the post showed up on the blog sans title.

Have you used any of these tools? Are there any other ways to create content outside of the WordPress user interface? If so, I’d love it if you let me know.


Why you shouldn't post your PowerPoint slides online (and the alternatives available)

This is not going to be a PowerPoint is Evil rant. Heck, some people have even won Academy Awards and Nobel Prizes with their PowerPoint presentations, so there is no denying that, when used correctly, can be a powerful tool to convey meaning to a live audience.

But that is it’s place – in front of a live audience. PowerPoint is a presentation tool and was never intended to be a web friendly format. So you should avoid putting your PowerPoint presentations online and here is why.

It doesn’t work

There are 3 technical reasons why you don’t want to put your PowerPoint files on the web.

  • The files are big, especially if you use lots of animations and fancy transitions.
  • They require students to have PowerPoint or the PowerPoint viewer installed on their computer.
  • Depending on the browser, how it is configured and the security settings, PowerPoint files can cause strange and unexpected behaviours. One user may have that PowerPoint file open in their browser, another may be prompted to download the file while a third may get a security warning that a potentially malicious file is about to be opened.

These are barriers for students and should be reason enough to shy away from putting your PowerPoint presentations online.

What do these slides mean?

For me, however, the overriding reason to avoid putting your PowerPoint presentation online is that your students are missing a fundamental piece to help them truly understand the content- you.

In order to be a useful methods of delivering information, PowerPoint requires someone at the helm to guide the viewer and fill in the space between the bullet points. Without you, PowerPoint slides are just disjointed bullet points of facts and images with no context as to what those facts and images really mean. You provide the context that is critical to understanding. Take you out of the picture and the presentation is useless.

The design problem

You approach different mediums in different ways. Decisions on how you craft your message needs to factor in the medium you use to deliver that message.

Designing for presenting is completely different than designing for the web, just like designing for print is different than designing for video. In order to effectively communicate meaning, you need to structure your content in a way that correctly uses the medium you are designing for. Each medium requires different strategies to be used effectively.


The first solution is the one that takes the most effort, but has the biggest payoff in terms of making sure your content is both understood and technically accessible. Recreate the content in your PowerPoint presentations in a web friendly format. Rewrite your bullet points in HTML, convert your images to jpeg or gif, and build some web friendly pages of content. It fixes all the problems mentioned above. You can do this in Powerpoint by saving your presentation as a web page.

I am not a big fan of this method for a couple of reasons. For one, it is still content that has been designed for Powerpoint and brings with it all the constraints and none of the benefits of that format. The second is the geeky reason – the code is poor and it tends to create whacks of files and folders that all need to be uploaded for the pages to work correctly. For more tech savvy faculty, this may not be a problem. But if you are the type of faculty who can’t find or organize files and folders on your computer, this may be a challenge. It’s better to use other HTML editing tools (like the built in editor and content manager in Desire2Learn) to do this.

If you absolutely must post PowerPoint presentations on the web, at least do your students a favour and don’t force them to download large files or the PowerPoint viewer. Chances are they already have a PDF reader installed on their computer, so convert your PowerPoint to PDF and post that instead. PDF is a much more web friendly format than PowerPoint.

An option that is becoming more popular is using a web service and posting your PowerPoint online. A service like Slideshare works like YouTube for PowerPoint. You can create an account and upload your presentation. The presentation is converted to the (close to) ubiquitous Flash format which you can then embed in a web page, blog post or D2L course content page. No downloads for students.

There are also online presentation tools, like Preezo, SlideRocket and Google Presentations that you can either use as a starting point for creating web friendly presentations, or will convert your existing PowerPoint presentations to something you can easily embed into your course. While not as feature rich as PowerPoint (and who really uses all those features anyway?), these are still powerful tools for creating web friendly presentation that won’t make your students curse you as they wait for your 100 meg PowerPoint file to download.