Skype your way to learning

Music lessonAs a musician, I used to think that there were some things that could never be taught online. For example, learning to play a musical instrument seemed to call for a face-to-face interaction without question.

But I was surprised to learn that there are many teachers conducting class and individual lessons over Skype. Some of these teachers have students who are miles away, and others use Skype to occasionally supplement face-to-face lessons. You can imagine that if music can be taught this way, many other subjects can be as well. A wealth of how-to videos can be found on YouTube.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Skype (http://www.skype.com/), it is is a peer-to-peer service that enables you to make and receive video and voice calls with your computer via the Internet (known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP). Skype also works nicely on tablets and smartphones. And in addition to video calls, Skype can handle phone calls, text messages, file attachments and more.

Because connecting to another Skype user is free, Skype has become popular for international calls. Skype makes money by charging for connections to and from landline and cellular phones.

How does it work?

1. Download Skype or a Skype mobile App.

2. Create an account sign in, and add contacts.

3. To call Skype contacts, click the person’s name and choose video or call. To call a phone, click Call phones and enter the number.

Tips for successful Skyping

  • Begin with the basics. A higher-grade webcam, headset and microphone can help filter out background noise and improve audio or video quality. And a high-speed WIRED Internet connection will make the experience more pleasant. On wireless connections, audio conversations will cut out more frequently and the video will not be as responsive.
  • Make sure that both sites are using the same and the most up-to-date versions of the Skype software.
  • Keep other system demands as low as possible when Skyping. Even so, some issues cannot be controlled (bandwidth, firewalls, excessive number of connected users.) If your connection is poor, try reconnecting one or more times to get a better connection.
  • To improve video quality, make sure both sites are well-lighted. Video is best viewed on small screens; it becomes grainy when displayed on a projection screen
  • Unscrupulous Skype users sometimes contact strangers and pose as a friend or family member to get personal information, such as bank account numbers. Be skeptical of any contact that you were not expecting through Skype. Be especially wary of following any web links sent to you through Skype.

That’s the quick and dirty version. Try it out and let me know what you think!

Image:  Gerard ter Borch  (Dutch) The Music Lesson. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Gerard_ter_Borch_(Dutch_-_The_Music_Lesson_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

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Breaking the Silicon Ceiling

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been asking the question for years: Why are there so few women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? These careers are lucrative and vital to our economy, but according to AAUW, women make up only 12 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computing professionals.

I don’t think I have any answers, but I do think there is reason to hope that young women coming up through our universities may be poised to change that equation.

First, let’s look at an ignominious moment in recent history: the release of Dell Computer’s “Della” site. According to Jenna Wortham’s 2009 blog post, “The site originally featured tech ‘tips’ that recommended calorie counting, finding recipes and watching cooking videos as ways for women to get the most from a laptop.” So a mere six years ago tech companies thought that women wanted cute, colorful machines to help them with lady computing. Heck, maybe they still think that. Seems a  little depressing if you are an aspiring female programmer.

But here are some things to give you hope. At the same time Dell was gendering its netbooks, the President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, was quietly building an engineering program that was designed to bring more women to the field.

NPR profiled President Klawe in 2013, and her story makes a fascinating read. By hiring more women faculty, adding more introductory courses, and by integrating research experiences and conferences, the college became a case study in how to break the Silicon Ceiling. By 2014, the college awarded more engineering degrees to women than to men. Take that, Silicon Ceiling!

Finally, let me circle back to AAUW. They recently posted 10 Ways to Get More Women into Engineering and Tech, which includes practical and simple ideas for those who have the power to help: employers, practitioners, and….parents? That’s right. If parents show their little girls that science is cool and encourage a problem-solving mindset, those girls may grow up to be the engineers of tomorrow. A simple yet powerful message to take to heart.


8 tips for pain-free progress reports

Bored man snoozing on computer keyboard

via Flickr user Brandon Heyer

A progress report (also known as an activity report or status report) is requested by those who are interested in the past, present, and future of something you are working on. Unlike a more formal research report, a progress report can be brief, with no need for cross-references or detailed front and back matter. A progress report can even be delivered verbally, although most organizations also require something in writing. Often a template will be provided, but occasionally you may be asked to draft something on the fly.

Planning the report

1. Assume the reader is 100% unfamiliar with your work. Even if your supervisor is familiar with what you do, a future supervisor or different department may not be. Plan to write the report to account for those things that are internalized: things you might (incorrectly) assume everyone already knows. Don’t skip or gloss over the details that your reader needs. This is where a journal (tip #8) can be a lifesaver.

2. Understand the time-frame you will report on. By definition, a progress/activity report is not a summary of your entire project. It covers a specific time segment. Progress reports can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or some other combination. In any case, the basic format is to explain what you have accomplished and what you still plan to do. Stick to this time-frame so that your content does not become bloated.

3. Define the purpose, audience, and format for your report. Even in a short, informal report, the good old “reporter’s questions” are a fine starting point. Two important things should be considered:

  • What are the special needs or interests of your readers? Do they like lots of detail or just the big picture? Do they prefer graphs and charts? Are they interested in reporting to stakeholders outside your organization?
  • Who else might read your report? In addition to your supervisor and any stakeholders, consider your organization’s executive level, future employers, auditors, and even lawyers. The need for accuracy and ethics is higher than it might appear.

4. Structure your report logically. A structure will help you cover all the highlights. Your employer may give you specific guidance, but a progress report typically contains these items:

  • Introduction
  • Summary and Results of Activities (past, present)
  • Future Activities
  • Conclusion

Some employers also ask for things like expenses and risks to be called out separately. A simple table or bulleted list often does the trick.

Drafting the report

5. Find a quiet time to write your report. (Good luck with that!) If you try to write when you are busy or distracted, you might forget important details.

6. Take a straightforward approach. Write in plain style and keep your page design simple. Avoid long paragraphs if a short paragraph (or list, or visual) will do the job. Brevity is both a requirement and a bonus for progress reports. As we know, most readers prefer short communications, even when the content is important.

7. Proofread! Carefully review, edit, and proof your report. Even though it is tempting to dash off a progress report without taking time to check your spelling and writing style, your supervisor will appreciate the extra attention. And as tip #3 suggests, other people may read your report and make judgments based on what they see.

Going forward

8. Keep a project journal. Depending upon your organization’s tools and customs, you may already be recording tasks at a granular level. But if not, find a way to record your daily activities–in a wiki, an online journal, or even a paper journal. You will save time in the long run.

What other tips do you have? Add them in the Comments below!


More grammar “rules” that were meant to be broken

(I seem to be very rules-adverse lately. Check out my previous post, Breaking grammatical rules–why not?)

Both my husbanddog with sign and my students have had occasion to think about grammatical rules lately. My students are revising projects to hand in for a grade; my husband is completing a dissertation. Both types of writing place value on correct grammar, but there are some things you just don’t need to stress over.

For years, I was under the impression that there was a rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. I’ve since learned that it is more a matter of style, going back to an attempt to Latin-ize everything back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, according to Oxford Dictionaries, there are times that an ending preposition is completely appropriate:

  • passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
  • relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
  • infinitive structures (Tom had no one to play with)
  • questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)

.(http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/grammar-myths-prepositions/)

Another “rule” concerns the split infinitive. The famous Star Trek example (“To boldly go where no man has gone before”) is arguably weakened when the adverb gets moved (“To go boldly where no man has gone before”). Once again, the attempt to turn English into Latin is at the heart of this rule.

There are times when a split infinitive avoids ambiguity. In the sentence. As Oxford Dictionaries points out:

The sentence 
You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]
doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:
You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’].

(http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/split-infinitives)

Because split infinitives tend to tick people off, experts recommend avoiding the split infinitive in professional writing, including job application letters.

But don’t let anyone tell you that there is a “rule” against split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Rules like that are meant to thoroughly be broken…er, you know what I am getting at.

Another entertaining read about grammar “rules” is available at grammarphobia.com


When you are The Decider

QuizzicalGnome

I like to think that I base most of my workplace decisions on facts, not biases, but there’s no denying that we humans are imperfect. How might subconscious biases affect the decisions or judgments we make in workplace communication? You may be surprised.

A couple of months ago I wrote about The Halo Effect. This week, I read a terrific related article by Buffer’s Belle Beth Cooper. Citing numerous examples and experts, Ms. Cooper describes eight ways our minds can play tricks on us. I’ve added some workplace context to each of her points, but I’m greatly indebted to her for pulling together all of the research!

1. Confirmation bias happens to the best of us. Confirmation bias happens when we gravitate toward those who think like us. Ms. Cooper acknowledges the need for confirmation of our beliefs and acceptance by our peers, but there is a downside to this need. Gradually we tend to ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t match up with our own beliefs. Considering the rate of change we deal with in most modern workplaces (technology, globalization, economics…), a confirmation bias can lead to significant problems down the road.

2. We confuse selection factors with results. This one is sort of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Ms. Cooper gives the example of a swimmer’s body: did the body become suited to swimming after training began, or was it already naturally suited to the sport because of broad shoulders, strong arms, etc.?

Or consider a high-performing university. Is it a result of great teaching or the careful selection of great students? Even if the answer is not completely clear, it’s important to understand how people (particularly advertisers) are prone to blurring the lines between causation and correlation. If you are marketing your company’s product, you may need to make the distinction at some point.

3. We fall for the sunk-cost fallacy. This one is tough to overcome. We are hard-wired to feel loss very strongly, and we can make some pretty poor decisions based on this feeling. Ms. Cooper cites the example of buying a ticket for a movie, only to belatedly realize that the movie is terrible. Should you stay to “get your money’s worth” or cut your losses and leave? Most of us would probably stay. But a more reasonable response might be to let go of the monetary investment–it’s over and done–and just move on.

In the workplace, we hang on to sub-standard software, hardware, processes, and many other things just to prove to ourselves that the investment was worthwhile. When do we make the decision to kiss that investment goodbye and cut our losses?

4. We fall for the gambler’s fallacy. If you play cards, this one is probably well-known to you. When you’ve lost, say, five hands in a row, you figure that the odds are in your favor for that sixth hand–surely this will be the winning hand–it has to be!

But probability doesn’t work that way. A coin toss has a 50/50 chance of landing on heads, no matter how many consecutive times it lands on tails, right? The lesson is that in both cards and the workplace, we can’t rely on luck or hope to turn things around. It usually involves a tough decision and some hard work.

5. We avoid cognitive dissonance by rationalizing our behaviors. This is a fancy way of talking about how we deal with situations that induce “buyer’s remorse.” To resolve the mental discomfort (cognitive dissonance) when we make a bad purchase, we either find a way to justify it (“I needed a new Porsche for my commute to work”), or censure ourselves for poor judgment (“I can’t be trusted with money.”) It’s important not to let one bad decision convince us (wrongly) that we’re bad decision-makers.

While it’s also important to avoid “analysis paralysis” in decision-making, it’s almost comforting to know that a certain amount of post-mortem rationalization will be in store when decisions don’t pan out; cut yourself a break when it happens.

6. We get fooled by the anchoring effect. As explained by Dan Ariely, we tend to make decisions by comparing the value of two or more options rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment. We do this all the time in the workplace. Whenever we choose the lowest bid simply because it is the lowest bid, the anchoring effect is at play. Lowest cost does not always equal the best value.

The takeaway: Calculate the value and cost of any option independently from its competitors. Then begin the process of choosing the winner.

And as Ms. Cooper notes, any marketer knows that the word “free” is a surefire hit. Even if what we’re getting for free is not so hot, we consumers can’t resist when the headline includes that magical word. If you are the marketer in your company, use this power wisely.

7. Memory and gut instinct can be wrong. It’s more than a little disheartening to realize that we don’t always remember things reliably. If you need to make decisions in the workplace, look at the facts and data to confirm what you think that you know. While gut instinct can be spot on, you’ll rest easier knowing that you can back up your decision with facts.

8. The conjunction fallacy leads to illogical thinking. This one has to do with the way preconceived notions and a love of detail affect our thinking. The conjunction fallacy was documented years ago by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As stated in Michael Lewis’s fascinating Vanity Fair article about Daniel Kahneman,  “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.”

Relying on stereotypes that assume that people are always logical and uniform in their thinking is bound to cause problems. Popular culture offers stereotypes ranging computer programmers (nerdy, pudgy guys who play World of Warcraft) to uptight librarians (ask any modern librarian if he or she goes around “shushing” the patrons, and you’ll get an earful.)

Well, that’s where my mind is today. Let me know where your mind is in the comments below.

 

Photo credit: unknown


Aristotle wants you to ace your job interview

AristotleMost of us learn about Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle in high school and again in freshman English. The concept is simply this: in order to persuade your listener or reader to do what you want, your argument should be informed by ethos (credibility), logos (fact, logic) and pathos (emotional appeal). In case you were wondering, that rhetorical triangle sure comes in handy outside of school, too. Here’s a YouTube video that applies the rhetorical triangle to images from advertising.

So how does the rhetorical triangle fit in to your job interview?

  • Each of the three rhetorical strategies can be accomplished through metaphor or storytelling
  • Success depends upon your delivery and the audience’s reaction

 Telling the story via the CAR method

The CAR formula (also known as STAR) is borrowed from many, many other people. And it works beautifully for an interview situation.

To answer most interview questions, you need to tell a story. To structure your story, use CAR:

  • Context
  • Actions Taken
  • Results.

To illustrate, let’s pretend that the interviewer has just asked The Little Engine That Could (LETC) to describe a situation when he (it?) was challenged. The LETC begins with context: A train full of toys and candy needed to be pulled over the mountain to the children of the neighboring town. None of the big engines in the rail yard wanted to take on the task of pulling the heavy train up the mountain. I knew that the children would be sad if they didn’t get their toys and treats.

Then the LETC describes the action: I didn’t want the children to be disappointed, so I volunteered to pull all the cars of the the train myself, even though I am only a Little Engine. I went very slowly, but I kept going. All the way, I said to myself, “I think I can, I think I can.”

And then, the results: I made it over the mountain, and I said, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” I delivered the goodies to the children. They were so happy! And now I am well known for my determination.

There you have it–a way to plan for both the common interview questions and the ones that come out of left field.

The audience reaction

rhetorical triangle

Aristotle believed that rhetoric was effective only if the audience was moved to take action. And what moved them? A credible speaker (ethos), backed up by solid facts (logos) and an appeal to what we value in our hearts (pathos). In the triangle illustration at right, we can see movement from the writer (or speaker) to the audience.

The triangle encompasses trustworthiness, passion, and any number of character traits.

  • You build credibility through your appearance (classic, tailored clothing), your actions (greeting each person cordially, arriving on time or just a bit early), and your words. (My advice? Take time to plan what you want to say before you speak!).
  • The facts you emphasize should be sprinkled throughout your résumé. Bring work samples and references to further support these facts.
  • Research the company and the field, particularly if you are just starting out, and understand what they value. Understand who the competitors are, what problems this particular industry faces, and identify ways to align your skills to help them reach their goals.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!


Proofreading on a budget

PubicSchoolsI like to think I’m a pretty good proofreader. Assuming I can clearly see the screen or printout–which is more of a challenge as I’ve gotten older–I often find the mistakes that others gloss over. (See the billboard at left; I think I would have caught that one.)

But even with perfect vision, most of us can’t proof our own writing very well. It’s incredibly easy to overlook mistakes if you’re “too close” to the writing. And if you are a good writer, you should get close to your writing!

(Case in point: according to the company responsible for the billboard, the sign passed muster with no less than four other readers. I guess they were having an off day.)

Assuming you have the time and resources to work with a proofreader, that’s your path to error-free writing. Professional proofreaders are worth their weight in gold.

But what’s a conscientious but cash-poor writer to do? Here are some tricks I’ve collected over the years. Some might work better for copy-editing than for proofreading, but hey, it’s all iterative when it comes to writing.

  • Turn on the hidden formatting characters of your word processor. These characters show things like paragraph breaks and spaces. You may find them annoying onscreen, but they won’t print on paper or PDF–try it and see. They are there only to help you find those extra spaces or mismatched font sizes.
  • Manually double-check the spelling of all proper nouns: people, places and things. Spell-Check tools can learn new words, but sometimes my writing contains words that aren’t in its dictionary yet.  If you’re writing something important, such as a job application letter, you’d better know how to spell the employer’s name. If your résumé boasts of your mad PowerPoint expertise, don’t spell it as power point.
  • Run readability tests to tone up your copy. I cringe at the idea of a standard algorithm that rewards word or syllable count–completely antithetical to concise business or technical communication. But if you are looking for some independent verification of the complexity of your writing–and you understand the limitations–a readability test can be useful. An interesting one is The Writer’s Diet. It tells you whether your writing is “flabby or fit” in relation to vocabulary, sentence structure, and more. If you’re interested in the old Flesch or Gunning Fog-type tests, try Joe’s Web Tools or Juicy Studio for starters.
  • Print your paper & read it one line at a time. Time-consuming? You bet. But sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Taking the time to carefully read your writing can help uncover typos and even problems with tone.
  • Read your paper aloud, one line at a time. Why this works I don’t know, but reading my writing aloud always brings problems to the surface.
  • Run your paper through an assistive technology product. This one may sound unusual, but don’t knock it until you try it. Assuming you don’t already use assistive technology, check out the built-in screen readers that exist in Word, Acrobat, Apple OS and other products. When my eyes (or brain) tire, I sometimes turn these on. The computerized voices don’t always give you an accurate pronunciation, but they can alert you to obvious errors by reading EXACTLY what is onscreen. In fact, any way to shake up the standard view of your screen can be useful. Browser extensions on Chrome & Firefox provide not only screen readers, but also the ability to switch to reverse type (black background and white text).
Notice that Spell-Check was not on my list. I’ve saved it for last.
  • Run Spell-Check any time you make changes (but understand & verify its suggestions). Technology is wonderful, but Spell-Check would not have flagged that billboard’s text as an error. All of the words are standard English. On the other hand, my WordPress spell checker doesn’t like résumé or assistive, which are both in a standard English dictionary as well. Use Spell-Check, but be cautious. Understand the reason it wants to change something, and decide whether or not you agree.

Any other ideas? Please add them in the Comments below.