Author Archives: Tech Guru

Software for Family History

Using software to manage your family history data is one way to make genealogy more like a hobby than a full time filing job.  I have experience with two of the top genealogy programs for Windows, so what I write here is based on that experience and if you use something else, keep doing what’s working for you.

Family Tree Maker is the software that links closely with Ancestry.com, probably the biggest commercial online genealogy resource.  And it is commercial!  You will pay for everything you get but for some of us, it’s worth it.  Family Tree Maker does a good job of navigating the resources on Ancestry.com and linking things to your family members.  As a matter of fact, it’s so easy to link data to your family members that you need to be extremely careful that you review every resource before you merge it to your family tree or you can get a lot of so called “facts” that conflict and clearly don’t help you find the truth of your lineage.

The Master Genealogist is a software package that doesn’t try to link you to resources on the Internet.  You have to find your own data and link it up manually.  That may sound like a negative, but The Master Genealogist does a better job than almost any other package of documenting the research behind your family tree.  It also has more ways to customize the reports you generate so you can, with effort, produce a product that is worthy of publication.

My conclusion — I use both of these and like them for their individual strengths.  I do most of my online research in Family Tree Maker and then review everything before entering the data into The Master Genealogist.  Entering the data twice may sound like extra work, but it gives me a way to check my work more thoroughly and I like that.

UPDATE RE: The Master Genealogist (Aug 1, 2014)

Right after I finished writing the post about software for family history research, I received a notice from the developer of The Master Genealogist announcing that he was ceasing development of the product in a few months.  This is really a shame because there isn’t another product around that does what TMG does.  Those of us who already have the program will continue using it as long as it works with whatever Microsoft turns out, but based on the recent news, I can’t recommend that anyone dive in and buy The Master Genealogist unless a new developer comes forward and takes over the product.

Discontinuation of The Master Genealogist

Links

Free Software

There’s no doubt that for major applications, commercial software can be the bast choice.  If you need office applications, there is a company that begins with M that makes an excellent office suite.  For graphics creation and editing, a company that begins with the letter A makes the applications that are arguably the best for professional use.

However, there are some good free choices for many applications that can do all or most of what the commercial apps can do.  Here are some of my favorites:

Screen Shots and Screen Videos

  • CamStudio — Provides a tool to make quality screen videos for demonstrations that is equal to professional tools that cost money.
  • PicPick — My new favorite for screen shots.  It also has basic editing and annotation tools.  This is a great tool for anyone who makes instructional manuals.
  • MWSnap — My former favorite for screen shots.  It’s still a great tool even though it’s a bit dated.  It works with Windows 7 and 8 plus older versions.

Text Editors

  • Notepad++ — This is a great editor for anyone who needs to edit text.  For batch files, VBScript, and even simple SQL scripts, this editor provides colored syntax and the ability to script some editing functions.  This is the editor I use the most.

Other editors like VIM and Emacs may be more powerful, but have a much more significant learning curve.  If you already know how to use them, though, they are available on nearly every OS.

More free software yet to come . . .

When Technology Doesn’t Work

All of us who work with technology in an education setting (or any other setting for that matter) have had the experience of standing in front of a group of students and having the technology we planned on using fail.

It’s embarrassing, to be sure, but how we handle this kind of situation, especially in front of school age students, can make all the difference between a merely unfortunate incident and an incident that causes students to become negative toward the particular application we were trying to use.

It is important to model a calm attitude while at the same time thinking fast about options to resolve or exit from the activity.

Many tests and assessments are now delivered electronically and students catch on pretty fast that some of these can be pretty high stakes.  The last thing we want to do is to cause students to become anxious or unfocused.  So, when the test engine isn’t working, it’s important for the person in charge to stay in charge and help the students to feel that everything will work out in the end.

Sometimes, the best plan is to put off testing for another time.  In other situations, it may just be necessary to delay until things are fixed and working.

Keep calm and carry on

Keep calm and carry on – from Wikimedia Commons.

The younger the students, the shorter the wait must be, so it is always best to have an exit plan in case things don’t work.  When the technical difficulties are fixed, a positive attitude about the second try goes a long way toward helping students’ confidence and will likely also help to maximize their performance.

“Keep calm and carry on” was the slogan used by the British government prior to the Second World War to improve general morale, and the sentiment also works well when technology doesn’t.

Excel Tips for Data Analysis

Microsoft Excel ® is an ideal tool for data analysis.  While my SQL and SPSS friends may look down on a humble spreadsheet application, Excel is able to do a lot of analysis with relative ease compared to more high powered solutions.

The purpose of this article is to provide some tried and true tips to make data analysis in Excel as effective as possible.  There are a lot of ways to do things in Excel and some of them make analysis easier while other ways can create problems down the line.

Data for Analysis Should be in Tabular Form

  1. There should not be empty rows or columns within the data table and every column should have one row with column names at the top of the table. If data is missing, it’s OK to have blank cells here and there but entire rows and columns that are empty cause problems. Many times I have been given a spreadsheet with data that was “prettied up” by putting blank rows and columns in it to make it look nice.  Before I can do anything useful, I have to clean up the data to make a normal table.
  2. As much as possible, all of the data should be in a single table.  Splitting the data up by some factor in the data that could be used for analysis limits what you can do when analyzing the data.  For example, if you have data from several school, there should be a column identifying the school in the table rather than a separate table for each school.

Each Column Should Be of a Consistent Data Type

  1. Columns can contain text, dates, numbers but all of the elements in a column should contain the same kind of data.
  2. Values within columns should consistently identify attributes of the data.  In other words, if a column represents gender, values should be consistently represented by either ‘M’ and ‘F’ or ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ but not a combination of the two.  Numbers should all express the same unit (e.g. quarts, gallons, percentage points, currency, etc.).

Conclusion

By keeping your data clean and simple in the spreadsheet, you have all of the data analysis options in Excel available to you including Auto Filters, Sorts, Pivot Tables, Conditional Formatting, etc.

Supporting Teachers with Technology Integration

In the years that I have supported teachers, principals and other education staff with technology, I have discovered that most of the people fall into one of four categories: Reluctant/Minimal users, Average users, Power users, and, if you are lucky, Advanced users.

While each of these categories have specific needs, the single most helpful thing that I have learned is that if you can find a specific need that the teacher has and help the teacher to meet that need more easily, you will have sold them on the benefit of a specific technology.

Spending time talking to teachers, listening to their needs and concerns and establishing an empathy with them is the best way to begin to understand what they need and want from technology.

Reluctant/Minimal Users

Back in the prehistoric era of Windows 95 and Windows 98, reluctant users were distinct from minimal users.  The reluctant user was not at all interested in using technology, except for the occasional film strip or movie. I remember one teacher that was so adverse to technology that I literally had to move his hand to show him how to manipulate the mouse.

Nowadays, most of these reluctant users have either advanced to a higher level or have retired from education.  Since there are so few truly reluctant users left, I group them with the minimal users.

So, how can we best support the reluctant or minimal technology user?  In my opinion, the best way to get these people to use technology is to show them one or two ways that technology makes their work easier.  For some teachers their need may be to facilitate the use of an electronic grade book.  For others it may be an application that helps the teacher develop customized instructional materials (e.g. word processing, desktop publishing, or presentation software).

The key is to listen to the teacher and find what the teacher needs or wants and then provide an easy solution focused on that need or desire.

Average Users

The average user is willing to make use of technology and probably already does to some extent.  Many of this type have a rather low opinion of their own technology skills and knowledge.  If the average user is enthusiastic about technology, they can be a joy to work with.

Average users can often be afraid of making mistakes or breaking the computer.  Sometimes the best thing you can do to support them is to show them how to fix minor mistakes and encourage them not to fear breaking the machine.

Average users may not always use the best tool for the job or they may not know the more advanced techniques that can make their technology use more productive and enjoyable.  As with the minimal users, the best course is often to watch and listen and then provide strategies that make the teacher’s work easier.

Power Users

Power Users have skills and the interest to make use of technology and often need little help.  However, they may discover that a particular task is difficult and ask if there is an easier way.  Power Users benefit from specific techniques that help them to meet their needs and often request more advanced training on software applications that they use.

Power Users can often become peer mentors to other teachers, so the time spent with them is well worth the effort.

Advanced Users

Advanced users are probably your peers.  They are self-starters and are completely capable of picking up new technology on their own. Give them what they need, eliminate obstacles and challenge them to become peer mentors.

[To be continued]

Welcome to Pantac.com!

This is a personal web site devoted to the integration of technology and education.

Also hosted by Pantac.com is Colla Voce, a site for singers and teachers of singing.  Please visit our associate site and explore the material there.

Pantac.com has been around for several years but experienced technical difficulties this past year so all content is being rebuilt.  Please be patient during the reconstruction and visit frequently to see what is new.

Text Editors

Every Tech Guru needs to edit text files from time to time. Here are some of the tools I regularly use.

Text Editors

  • Windows NotePad: This is the application that is in Windows and has been since the beginning. If you need a text editor on a machine that isn’t your own, this is probably going to be the easiest one to find.
  • Notepad++: This is my go-to application when I need to edit a text file. It’s free and available as a portable app that can be included on a thumb drive.  You can get it at notepad-plus-plus.org.

For the Linux/Unix gurus, here are some editors that you probably already know about.

  • Emacs: This is the Swiss army knife with the entire Swiss army attached as far as text editors go. I have only dabbled with Emacs, but it runs on Linux, Unix, Windows and OS X, and it seems to have more capabilities than any one person could ever learn to use. There are several versions of Emacs for Windows, but the GNU Emacs version seems to be the closest to the Linux/Unix version. You can get it at: Download Emacs.
  • Vi (or Vim): Linux/Unix people get pretty opinionated about whether Vi or Emacs are the best editor in the known universe. I have dabbled with both and Vi is hard for me to get my head around, but it’s proponents swear by it. You can download VIM here: Download VIM.
  • Nano or Pico: These are minimalist editors but they are easy to understand for people who are not already Linux/Unix experts. In other words, when I have to edit something in Linux or Unix, I use one of these because I haven’t spent enough time to learn Emacs or Vi.