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 (, 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.


New Year’s Resolutions for Workplace Communication

ElephantAnother year has flown by. To tell the truth, the years fly by faster every year. Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my fall semester students (what a good bunch!) and in about four weeks I’ll be meeting my new students. While I still have some time, I wanted to jot down ideas for the workplace writing I’ll do in the coming year.

1. Organize: the filing cabinet, the desktop, the email inbox, the files, the photos…it seems to be a never-ending struggle. One baby-step I can take now is to start using file-naming conventions the right way.

2. Learn something new: I’m a firm believer that learning never ends. In 2014, I am planning on finishing my graduate certificate in Interactive Media Studies. Two more courses, and I’ll have it!

3. Update professional profiles, such as LinkedIn and Slideshare: As you do learn and achieve new things, update the places that matter to you professionally. Some of us keep an up-to-date vita. Most of what I do is online, so it’s time to revisit the page and all the other places that could contain outdated info.

4. Use technology to automate tasks: Anything that I can outsource to a computer is fair game! I recently bought my very first smartphone, and I’m learning about how to get Siri to find things (although she’s not as smart as I had hoped.) I’m also beginning to store things like coupons & boarding passes on my phone. For my teaching, I’ve used services such as IFTTT and Remind 101 to trigger events or send reminders. I need all the help I can get!

That’s my list, and I’m sure I’ll add more as the year goes on. Add your list in the comments! And Happy New Year!

Photo credit: user Donnawetta

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.

The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication


The other day I was chatting with the parents of some incoming first-year students, and the topic turned to the ways technology has changed since we were in college. One dad bemoaned the increasing preference for texting over telephone conversations (not to mention face-to-face conversations.)

He went on to point out the dehumanizing effects of social media–a viewpoint that many experts agree with. In fact, heavy Facebook use has been linked with higher rates of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in college students. Yikes!

In their article On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Victoria Wang et al define  a phatic technology as one that “serves to establish, develop and maintain human relationships.” An outcome of this relationship is the formation of a social community (44). If that dad and I had more time (and if I weren’t trying so hard to be agreeable), I might have pointed out some of the ways that texting, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social tools have actually given us additional chances to maintain community and the human touch, especially from a distance.

Because I work in technology, I know all too well that social media has its pitfalls. And I have seen enough cat videos to last for three lifetimes. Yet social media has also enabled me to keep in touch with family on both coasts, receive urgent news instantly, and to experience a sense of community with colleagues, friends, and relatives who may never meet each other in person. (I won’t pretend to speak for traditional-aged college students, who may experience both the need to connect and the need to strike out on their own.)

Writing in Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design, Frank Vetere et al found that online phatic interactions fell into four categories:

  1. maintaining an existing relationship
  2. initiating a conversation
  3. developing a new relationship
  4. being polite and observing social norms (183).

It is this fourth category, the idea of being polite, that critics seem to focus on the most. Can it be that people understand the rules of “Twittiquette,” but they have in the meantime lost their ability to function in polite society? For example, in a humorous video treatment, YouTube user evmoneytv pokes fun at our apparent struggles with understanding how to wait in line (“How to stand in line”). We clearly need help relearning our manners.

In fact, as Frank Vetere and his co-authors point out, phatic systems are designed precisely to convey significance and meaning by taking the shortest path possible — cutting the line, if you will (178). The real differentiator for modern phatic technologies is not rejection of good manners, but an emphasis on speed. We can complete social transactions almost instantaneously, compared to some of our older methods (like letter-writing). We shorten our messages or leave out some of the details in order to keep up the pace. For some of us, the speed adds a sense of anxiety as we try to stay connected to our communities. And when we’re anxious, we can forget our manners.

Certainly we feel wistful about the joy of reading a beautifully-written letter or the thrill of hearing the voice of a loved one, but let’s not assume that new technologies completely eliminate the human touch. Remember what your mama taught you, and follow the Golden Rule–we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go along.


evmoneytv (2010).  How to stand in line.

Gibbs, M. (2009). The first 10 rules of Twittiquette.

Markopoulos, P., De Ruyter, B., Mackay, W., eds (2009). Awareness Systems : Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design. (2013). Is Facebook Ruining Our Social Skills? [Infographic] .

V. Wang, J. V. Tucker, T. E. Rihll (2011). On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Technology in Society, Volume 33, Issues 1–2. (

Web Designers: Don’t Ignore Seniors!

With any luck, one day all of us will be seniors: the demographic that includes people aged 65 or older. Even if you are far from reaching this milestone yourself, there are good reasons to consider this demographic when designing web content.

Full disclosure: this topic is a pet research interest of mine. About ten years ago, I researched this subject thoroughly and published Curb Cuts on the Information Highway in Technical Communication Quarterly. In short, I argued for more resources and better attention to this age group, offering some examples of sites that were “getting it right.”

In technology terms, my article is ancient; my interests have turned now toward using the iPad as a bridge for adults with age-related disabilities. But according to Jakob Nielsen, a renowned usability expert, one thing hasn’t changed: websites are still not “senior-friendly,” and designers are missing out on a growing (and often wealthy) group of customers. (Read Jakob Nielsen’s article Usability for Senior Citizens.)

It’s not that hard to make your site more usable. If you code to standards (particularly WCAG 2.0), most of the work is pretty basic: avoid tiny fonts; use white space around clickable links, etc. Some of it is pure common sense: keep text to a minimum, write simply, make it easy to recover from mistakes. Shouldn’t you already be doing that?

And if you’re not already designing for mobile, here’s another reason to get started: who do you think is buying all those iPhones? According to another Nielsen, the one that tracks marketing and spending, Baby Boomers are “marketing’s most valuable generation.” They spend close to 50 percent of all CPG dollars yet less than 5 percent of advertising is geared toward them.

The oldest Boomers are now past 65; maybe it’s time to get ready for this amazing opportunity for your online marketing.

What do you think? Is your site ready for the Boomers?

Can you repeat that? Understanding speech recognition

parrotTo me, speech recognition is nothing short of a miracle. A piece of software can take the words I speak (in my nasally-southwestern Ohio twang, no less), work its magic, and translate that messy sound into relatively coherent text. If you’ve ever transcribed spoken conversation using a tape recorder and your own fortitude, you can appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.

My first experience with speech recognition came about five years ago when I purchased a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. The product was marketed mostly for people with disabilities at that time, but  I wanted to use it to record comments on student papers during a particularly grueling online summer course.

The idea was that you could skip the keyboard and “train” the computer to learn your voice. You could even teach it common acronyms or jargon.

Once you got the hang of it, the thing was pretty accurate, although it sure generated some amusing errors from time to time. (Here’s an entire blog devoted to that sort of thing.) So in the end, using it for student comments caused some issues, and didn’t really save me any time at all.

Fast forward to VoiceOver, Siri, Google Voice and all the rest. The technology is undeniably getting better, but there is still a missing piece. Much like a trained parrot, speech recognition software is really just a means of processing speech patterns and looking for distinct differences (“yes” versus “no,” for example.) Right now, natural language processing (understanding the semantics and syntax of those sounds) is still a ways off.

Finally, for an interesting exploration of the differences between speech recognition and natural language processing, check out Geoffrey Pullum’s excellent article: Speech Recognition vs. Language Processing – Lingua Franca – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Photo Credit: ucumari via Compfight cc

No time! No time!

At this time of year, university folks get very busy. VERY VERY busy. Even bloggers with good intentions can fall behind.

So in order to give you something worthy, I’m turning this entry entirely over to David Pogue’s time-savers for tech. I didn’t know about most of them myself! Enjoy!

David Pogue: 10 top time-saving tech tips | Video on