Tools of the Trade: Free Web Services

When I made the jump from classroom teacher to school psychologist three years ago, many of the tech tools I use in my daily workflow changed according to my needs.  No longer did I need to have access to unit plans and materials for lessons, but I did need to focus more on scheduling my day and maintaining detailed case notes.

I’ve previously declared my love for Evernote as a tech tool for school psychologists, and I stand by that assertion today; it is the single most useful technology tool I’ve started using since taking on this role.  As I’ve already blogged about how I use Evernote, today I want to focus on a few other technology tools I use as a school psychologist that are totally free of charge (I’ll write about the stuff I pay for later this month).  These tools all have very slight, if any, learning curves, and they have made my organization and access to information practically ubiquitous.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a cloud storage & syncing service that gives users 2GB of space for free (click this link to sign up and you and I both get an extra 250MB of space free!).  Dropbox can be installed on as many computers as you wish, and once you connect your computers to the service, you can access any file stored in your Dropbox folder from that computer.  You can also access your files via the Web interface.

I like using Dropbox not only for the syncing capabilities (I can access any file I need from my work or home computers, plus there are apps for Android, iPhone, and iPad that allow access from those points as well), but for the backup feature.  Any file that might be accidentally deleted can be restored from the Dropbox website; furthermore, Dropbox maintains 30 days’ worth of versions of saved files, similar to Google Docs and wikis.  If you have documents you wish to share with a large group of people, Dropbox also allows users to share individual files or folders via the right-click menu on the desktop app (see how I used Dropbox to put my career’s worth of lesson plans online for public consumption).

Dropbox has received some negative press lately due to issues with its privacy policy, but their responses have satisfied me that my data are not at risk with them.  Still, better safe than sorry, and I sometimes use 7-Zip (another free utility) to zip and encrypt files that may contain sensitive information (there are also several third-party free & paid encryption options, such as BoxCryptor, SecretSync, and TrueCrypt).  Use a highly secure password generated by LastPass or another similar utility (I believe you can password protect Microsoft Office files right in Word, Excel, etc.), and your data are about as safe as they’re going to get, short of being printed out and kept in a fireproof safe.

Google Apps Suite

I have been a loyal Google Apps user since 2006, first of their Gmail/Google Calendar services, and later, of the entire mail/calendar/docs/etc. apps suite on my own personal domain.  So much digital ink has been spilled on the many strengths and weaknesses of these products that I won’t even try to sell you on them here (Google the reviews!), but again, the ubiquity of access (computer, phone, tablet) of Google Calendar has been fantastic.  It took me a little while to get used to the idea of creating new ‘calendars’ for different topics (e.g., ‘Counseling Appointments’, ‘IEP Meetings’, etc.), but I soon saw the value – each individual calendar acts as an overlay, so you can view or hide any calendar at any time.  If I know I have no IEP meetings in the near future, I hide that calendar.  I created a calendar called Absences to track my sick & personal days taken in a year; hiding all the other calendars for a few seconds allows me to glance through my year and see exactly when & why I’ve taken days.  When I’m done, the other calendars return with just a few clicks on the sidebar menu.

Although I’ve had a Google Voice number since before Google acquired GrandCentral, I didn’t have much use for it – I’ve had even less use for it since the advent of porting cell phone numbers and since we ditched our home landline almost 2 years ago.  What has been useful, at least in a work context, has been the ability to send text messages through the web interface.  With Google Voice, I can send text message reminders about appointments, meetings, etc., directly to parents & students without giving away my personal mobile phone number.  I’ve written before about the benefits of text messaging, and since then, further stories have broken about the beneficial role of SMS in increasing flu vaccine adoption and quitting smoking.  Although I only recently started using Google Voice at work, I’m looking forward to implementing it more frequently this coming year.

Cel.ly

Text messages aren’t just good for appointment reminders, they’re great for communicating instantly with large groups of people.  If you coach a team or advise a club (as I did), you know that e-mail has gone the way of Betamax and the 8-track for many of today’s kids.  With Facebook being banned at many schools, I’ve found the best method for reaching groups of students directly – especially during or toward the end of the school day – has been via text message.  They don’t need to be in front of a computer to receive the message, and it goes directly to their phone, which is almost always within arm’s length (NB: I worked at a high school; YMMV if you work with younger students who don’t have cell phones).  I’ve found a new service called Cel.ly that facilitates this kind of communication.

Cel.ly allows users to create channels, or “cells”,  to subscribe to, and settings can be tweaked to allow for group text messaging chat (moderated or unmoderated) or for one-way broadcast only (my choice).  One moderator can create several different cells, so you can send broadcasts to your entire team, the defensive line only, the junior varsity team only – whatever.  Cel.ly’s model is opt-in rather than opt-out, so students would need to text the cell name to the main number (23559) in order to subscribe, and they can unsubscribe at any time.

This service is similar to TextMarks, with one major difference: it is totally free (which means no ads, either).  I’ve been in touch with some of the folks at Cel.ly previously with support questions, and they have told me that they are specifically interested in providing this service to educators for their professional use and that they are open to suggestions on the service from educators.  If texting students en masse isn’t in your immediate future, I imagine this could also be a convenient way to connect with parent/community groups or colleagues, as well.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also be writing about free desktop software I use in the course of my job, as well as the web services for which I gladly fork over money every year.  If you have a favorite free Web-based service, please let us know about it in the comments!

2 comments

  1. Kelli Akers

    Thank you, Damian, for the helpful tech info. I am currently working on a specialist degree with the hope of working as a special ed director sometime in the future. Currently, as a process coordinator, I am on the hunt for tech tools to use, not only for educational purposes, but also for organizational purposes. Your suggestions will be put to good use.

  2. damian

    Thanks for dropping by, Kelli! I plan to have another post up soon on paid Web services I use, so check back soon!

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