Double-Duty Software Tools for Teaching

Just an update on my experiments with software tools for study and research purposes. I thought I’d talk about this in terms of some that are meant to act as in-between tools that combine functions done singly by others. Sometimes such double-duty tools have worked for me, others not, and others I haven’t really tried. Here’s what I found out.

Teaching Technologies Diagram

  1. Microsoft Word you know. Zotero is a reference (or citation) manager that I have found more versatile than EndNote, particularly in its ability to cater well for notetaking, linking of references to each other, and instant harvesting of references from web pages such as lists of books on Amazon. (EndNote is more powerful in some ways, but on balance Zotero is more useful for me.) Now there is an Aussie startup called ComWriter that handles both word processing and the citing of sources. To combine these functions makes all the sense in the world to me. But as Darth Vader said, “It’s too late for me, son.” I’m familiar with MS Word and find it quite powerful and effective, though it isn’t “the latest thing to come across the wire.” And I’ve invested heavily, first in EndNote, and now even more in Zotero. I can’t start from the beginning again, and don’t really feel the need to. But if I was a student starting out, I’d give it a serious look, especially now that it’s serious for student.
  2. While we’re talking about Zotero, I gave a good go to a program meant to combine the functions of a citation manager and a mindmap. What a great idea, to mindmap your references! One edition of Zotero was blessed with a user-written add-on (the kind of thing you get with such open-source software) that rendered one’s Zotero references in a fantastic concept mapper called VUE, or Visual Understanding Environment, put out by TUFTS University. VUE is very powerful, though I have not always found the instructions attached easy to understand. I tend instead to use the simpler mindmapping program FreePlane in many cases. That’s where Docear comes in. It is a program that combines FreePlane and a reference manager called JabRef. Again, a great idea, and I’ve toyed with it, not to replace Zotero but as a next step. It handles references internally and readily maps them. But…I haven’t found it always easy to use, hitting roadblocks at times that I can’t find a way around. That kind of lost time is hard to replace. I’m simply copying and pasting Zotero references one by one into FreePlane and manipulating them from there as needed.
  3. It is also possible to graphically map your writing process, and Scrivener famously allows writers to do this, including corkboarding the plot of a novel and moving units of writing around. It’s all the rage these days, and I was tempted to take the bait, but it doesn’t do one very critical thing for academic writing. It does not handle or integrate the referencing process. And for me, that’s a deal-breaker. I have experimented with using FreePlane to map out an article-length piece of writing in skeleton form, and found it to work well. So there’ll be no ‘literature and latte’ for me.
  4. On a different plane, I use presentation tools a lot, especially PowerPoint and now, mostly, Prezi. And increasingly needing custom graphics, I’ve delved into the world of vector graphics, which, instead of being composed of bits, are constructed using mathematical functions. The outcome is graphics that never lose resolution at any magnification, perfect for zoomable presentation formats. Being cheap, rather than Adobe Illustrator, I use the open-source alternative Inkscape for this purpose and increasingly love it. The halfway house in this case is Sozi, a zoomable presenter built originally as an extension for Inkscape, and now a stand-alone program. I’m new to it, but find it easy to use. It effectively takes a series of snapshots of your vector graphic in SVG format, such as Inkscape produces, that become your presentation slides and provides for customized transitions between them. It’s all zoomable and rotatable just as Prezi is, but rather than the somewhat hand-holding though very user-friendly graphics capabilities of Prezi, you have all the graphical freedom of Inkscape to work with. It looks very promising.

I am always evolving in my use of software tools for research and teaching, and have to watch that I don’t pick up something new to learn every couple of months. That’s not a good use of time. But good tools can mean good craftworks, and anything that expedites research or makes teaching more effective is good. Explore!

P.S. the above graphic was whipped up in Inkscape – took me most of an hour, but an expert user might have taken 10 minutes. Right now, though, WordPress won’t let me embed vector graphics, as far as I can tell.

An Embryonic Example of Teaching Hebrew Vocabulary Visually in Semantic Fields

This is a work in progress, lacking order and featuring only one or two hundred of the most common terms from OT biblical Hebrew, but you can see the principle I’m pursuing: representing vocabulary words that students need to learn in natural association and with visual clues. I’ve tried out more than one principle of association, and would like to cluster the circles together in related bubble masses in time, though the prezi will at some point begin to grind to a stop with its graphical content. So there is builder’s rubble and scaffolding lying around here.

Heb Vocab Fams Scrshot Smaller

The impetus for this visual aid I owe to David Gormley-O’Brien, whom I heard speak at the SCD Teaching & Learning Conference in Sydney last September, where he called for the teaching of biblical languages in semantic domains, while I was there presenting a paper on, yes, visual communication in the theological classroom. So this is my attempt to put David’s call into practice, such as it is so far.

From a method point of view, I have had to create the frame in prezi, take a screenshot of that and paste it into an Inkscape (i.e. vector graphics) document, type in Hebrew terms in SBL Hebrew font and manipulate them as needed, then select assemblages of Hebrew terms and export them as png files which I could then open from within prezi and drop into place, where they were tailored to fit as needed.

The link:

Feedback is most welcome.

Prezi for Luke Chapter 1 and Forward; Two Miracle Babies, Jesus & John the Baptist

This is a first draft prezi done for a sermon of mine at my home church yesterday. It attempts to visually map the relative roles of Jesus and John the Baptist at the gestation stage of their respective careers, and thus of their parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and stand-in Joseph. Just a first draft, but see what you think.

Dawn of New Day Luke 1 Scr'shot

I told people they could google for it, but for some reason, it’s very difficult for your online prezi material to be found by others in this way, unfortunately.

Comments are welcome.

Where are the Levites Mentioned? An Experiment in Visualization of Word Distribution in the Bible

I am experimenting with a template for visualizing the distribution of words and ideas in the Bible in a simple, at-a-glance format. Right now, with my limited IT skills, Prezi is the tool of choice. So here is a set of examples of how we might quickly and clearly show the distribution of a term or concept in the Bible. I’m using data on where Levites are mentioned in the New International Version, so it’s a simple English-language study, drawn from a search in BibleWorks.

The Pentateuch

Levite Refs in Pentateuch Sshot

What I notice here is that the book with Levites virtually in the name, ‘Leviticus’, barely mentions them! They don’t appear until ch. 25, almost at the end, and then only that chapter. So Leviticus is hardly about the Levites in any explicit way. But Numbers is loaded with references, as if it has Levites and their religious roles squarely in view. They appear among the underprivileged classes in many of the references to them in Deuteronomy, and they also appear significant in Exodus, especially in connection with Moses and Aaron as their patron figures.

The Historical Books

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

Levites feature with some frequency in the historical books of the OT, with particular concentrations in the mildly bizarre story about the Levite and his concubine late in Judges and in 1-2 Chronicles, suggesting that Levites may have had a part in ancient Israelite society from very early on, but are a particular focus of interest after the exile.

The Prophets

Levite Refs in Prophets Sshot

Levites are distinct for their general absence in the (Latter) Prophets, appearing in just a single half-chapter in Jeremiah, and that being the section of Jeremiah, 33:14-26, that is absent from the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint or LXX. The Levites are only mentioned in the last few verses of Isaiah 66, once in the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in Malachi 3:3, and a number of times in Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48, with suggestions that Levites are to have a demoted status in Jewish religion. That’s a very limited range of texts, and arguably late in production in each case. The general impression is of an appearance of this topic in exilic and post-exilic times.

The Writings

Levite Refs in Writings Sshot

It perhaps isn’t surprising in some cases, given the nature and subject matter of some of these books, but the Levites are not mentioned anywhere in the Writings, including the Psalms (not shown), apart from post-exilic Ezra and Nehemiah, where they become very prominent indeed.

I’m no scholar about the Levites, and in my mind the big three features of post-exilic Jewish religious life are Torah, Sabbath and, moreso later, synagogue. But perhaps Levites, though the Judges story in particular may set their origin in Israelite society very early, to say nothing of the Exodus references, are primarily a prominent feature of post-exilic society, and most references to them in our Bibles come from the exile or later. There is of course an intersection here with older historical-critical concerns, but I’m not an expert on these either, and would like to keep scholarly hypotheses from too quickly shaping the data at hand.

Another good visual study would be references to the Sabbath, no?

A Prezi related to Old Testament Ethics

Aid & Dev Prezi Screenshot

For those who are interested in Old Testament ethics, you might find this interesting.  Developed for a mid-year intensive session at MST in 2013, it is built on a word study of the term ‘ger‘, meaning something like ‘resident alien’, in the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch.  The rights enshrined in the laws of Deuteronomy protecting this class of people within the covenant society of Israel are quite striking – in a book that we sometimes think of as harsh!  Check it out: