Author: Sue Frantz

Scribblar: Shared Whiteboard

You are working with a student or a colleague. You are both standing in front of a whiteboard drawing, writing, and discussing your topic. But how do you do this online if you and your collaborator are not in the same physical location? I love Join.me for screensharing, but it’s not very useful if you want to draw something – unless of course you have some type of drawing program on your computer, like EpicPen.

Try Scribblar if you’re looking to share a whiteboard, in real time.

After setting up a free account (maximum of one room and only two users per room; see plans and pricing for more information), create your first room. You can play on the whiteboard without anyone else in the room, but to get a true feel for it, invite a friend by copying the URL for the whiteboard and emailing it to them.


The drawing tools

The menu to the right of the whiteboard provides the drawing tools. In Scribblar, mouse over each icon to see the popup descriptor.

Selector (arrow): Once you’ve written or typed on the board, click on this icon, and then click and drag on the whiteboard to select the elements you’d like. Dragging over any portion of an element will select the whole thing. If it’s a drawn image, you can click and drag to move it. Selected elements can be deleted with your keyboard’s delete key.

Pencil: This is the basic, freehand drawing tool. You can change the color and thickness.

Smooth pencil: You can change the color of this tool, but not the thickness of the line. It does appear to render a smoother line than the regular pencil.

Text (the “A” icon): For those who’d rather type than draw.

Shapes (straight line, square, circle, triangle, polygon, wedge). Select, then click and drag to set the size. Each shape element has its own features. The wedge, for example, includes a slider that lets you determine how much of a wedge you want to show, from 1 degree to 360 degrees. The straight line tool has options for adding arrows to one or both ends of the line. Change the fill color, line color, or both.


Highlighter: It works just like a highlighter. Change the color and the width.

Stamp: This tool comes with 6 premade stamps: Star, arrow, diamond, trademark symbol, registered trademark symbol, and copyright symbol.

 

The editing tools

The menu along the top of the whiteboard space provides the editing tools. Like the drawing tools, mouse over each icon to see the popup description.

Cut, copy, paste, undo, redo, delete, flip horizontally, flip vertically, lock the page to editing, unlock the page, clear the page, clear all the pages (how to add pages is explained below), take a snapshot of the whiteboard (your best option for saving what you produced), pointer (for, well, pointing – if you’re pointing, no other whiteboard tools will work for you. Click the icon again to toggle it off.), make the background a grid, equation editor, Wolfram/Alpha (for those with a paid plan), and change the whiteboard to a color other than white.

Adding new boards


In the lower left corner of the whiteboard, you can add new whiteboard pages to your room. Just click the right arrow, and a new page will appear. To switch back to the first page, click the left arrow or click the dropdown menu and navigate to the page you want.

If there is a way to delete a page once you have created it, I haven’t found it. If you erase an entire page, the page will still be listed here; it won’t be deleted. You can always delete the entire room and start over.

Audio, chat, and files

To the right of the whiteboard is the list of participants. The icons to the right of each participant’s name let you determine what kind of control that person has. Click the pencil, chat bubble, and microphone to toggle those off. If you’re the “admin” for the room, you cannot turn these off for yourself. The chat window is directly below the participant window. Above the participant window is the microphone. Click it on to talk.

The “assets” tab icons give you the power to upload an image, import a snapshot of a webpage, add a Flickr image, set a selected image as a background to your whiteboard page, download the selected image, delete the selected image, and refresh the “assets” window. If you want to just add the image to your whiteboard screen, click and drag it from the “assets” window to your whiteboard page.

Embed code

Want to embed your whiteboard room in a webpage? In the top right corner of the Scribblar whiteboard screen, click the little arrow next to “Room Options” and select “Embed this room.” A popup screen will give you the html code.

Limitations

Scribblar is built on Flash, so it won’t work on many mobile devices.

Scribblar only allows for audio communication, not video. If you want video, use Skype or some other video communication service.

No screensharing. Scribblar is only about sharing this particular program; you cannot share your entire desktop. For that, consider Join.me or Google Hangouts.

Caution: If you create a room, and then don’t visit it for 60 days, Scribblar will delete your room. If that’s a concern for you, use a service like FollowUp.cc to remind yourself to visit your room every 59 days.

 

Are You Safe and Secure?

Your computer files. Are they locked away from prying eyes? Are they backed up? Are they backed up offsite, away from fire and flood danger?

For the most part, I don’t have super-secret data on my computer. I teach psychology.

My work computer is a laptop that I tote around with me. I have never had my laptop stolen, but that was true for everyone who had their laptop stolen for the first time.

Security I already have in place

If I left my computer sitting on the roof of my car, it blew off on the 405 and rendered junk by a passing Kenworth, I would still have access to my files through Dropbox.com. I used to have an external hard drive at home I would use for backup, but it occurred to me that this would not help in case of, say, a fire at home. I’m a big fan of offsite backup.

In the case of mischievous riffraff, the thief needs to get into my laptop by guessing or bypassing my computer login. Once in, if they go into my web browser, they won’t be able to automatically log in to sites like Barnes and Noble or, more problematic, Wells Fargo. None of that username/password information is stored in my browser. All of that is stored in LastPass (see this blog post). When I travel with my laptop, I tell LastPass to log me out every time I close my browser. Even so, if I discovered my laptop stolen, I would immediately hop on my smartphone, tablet, or someone else’s computer and change my LastPass password. Just in case.

But all of my files and folders are theirs to see. Granted, I don’t much care if they want to read my syllabus, in fact, that would be kind of nice. I can’t imagine anyone being interested in committee meeting minutes. Reading those might be punishment enough for stealing my laptop. Student grades and assignments are more problematic. Realistically, does the average computer thief really care what Jane or John Doe got on their first psych exam? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous about it.


Folder Lock ($39.95, free trial).

With Folder Lock, I can lock or encrypt files or folders. There is a lot of encryption software out there. Folder Lock gets high marks for both security and usability.

After downloading and installing Folder Lock, you’ll be asked to create a master password. Make it good. And do NOT forget it. Repeat: Do NOT forget it. And do NOT write it on a sticky note you put on your monitor. Nothing kills security faster than handing the keys to the thief. I have my password saved as a “secure note” in LastPass.

Locking a file or folder

Folder Lock is ridiculously easy to use. To lock a file or folder, navigate to the file or folder location, then drag and drop into Folder Lock.

Here I have added a folder. With the folder “locked,” it no longer appears in the original folder. It’s there, but it’s hidden. In fact, since this is a Dropbox folder, I still have access to it everywhere I have Dropbox installed. [That means that I had better have good security on my mobile devices – at minimum a lock screen. Save yourself the worry and install Lookout Mobile Security ($30/year and worth every dime) – locate your mobile device or wipe it clean.] If I want to access this folder from this computer, I have to go into Folder Lock and double-click on the folder. If I click on it once, I can unlock it (it will be visible again) or remove it (it will also be visible again). Which option I choose depends on whether I’m going to want to lock it again or not.

Encrypting a file or folder

This is upping the security significantly. Encryption scrambles the file data so that it’s unreadable to everyone except the person who holds the key. In this case, your key is your Folder Lock master password. If you are going to be storing sensitive data in the cloud, say in Dropbox or any other web-based storage service, encrypt it before storing it.

In Folder Lock, encrypted files or folders are stored in “lockers.” Click “Encrypt Files” and then “Create Locker.”

Name your locker and identify where you’d like that locker to be stored.

Next you’re asked to create a password for the locker. Don’t forget this one, either. (Create another secure note in LastPass!). Now choose “type” – the default is fine. Choose the maximum size for this locker – how much crap are you going to want to store in here?

After the very satisfying congratulatory message at having set up your locker, let’s go back to the main Folder Lock program. We see the locker we just created.

In fact, Folder Lock has created a whole new drive on my computer. It acts just like any other drive. Copy or move stuff into it like you would any other folder.

When you exit Folder Lock, you will be asked if you want to close this locker. Say yes. With Folder Lock closed, the drive will disappear. To access it, you need to run Folder Lock again. Here you can see my locker status shows that it’s closed. To open it, double-click on the locker and enter your locker password.

The folder with the locker contents will open, and the new drive will appear again.

Backup

If you don’t want to save your encrypted files or folders in Dropbox or some other cloud-based storage service, you can use Folder Lock’s secure backup.   Folder Lock will not be able to access your files. They were encrypted (scrambled) on your computer. The only way to unscramble them is to have your password, which Folder Lock doesn’t have. That’s why you can’t ever forget your master password! There’s a storage fee depending on how much space you want. The smallest amount, 10 GB, is $5/month.

Backups are done automatically. All you have to do is save your files like you normally do, and Folder Lock will drop them in the queue for uploading.

Protect USB/CD and encrypt email attachments

Need to take your encrypted files with you on a flash drive? Use this option to copy your existing lockers or create new lockers on a flash drive or other portable media. If you lose your flash drive, no worries. No one can get into your files without your master password.

When you encrypt email attachments, Folder Lock compresses them into a password-protected zip file. The recipient will need to extract the files using a zip program like the free 7-Zip. The recipient will be prompted to enter a password – give them the password you attached to the file when you created it. For obvious reasons, it’s best not to do this in the same email message as the password-protected file.

A quick note on email. Email is the least secure method of sending information. In fact, at many institutions, email is considered public communication. Your IT staff – and the IT staff of your recipient(s) – can easily read your email. They probably aren’t as a matter of course because, frankly, your email is as exciting as your committee meeting minutes. That and they have plenty of their own email to read.

Folder Lock isn’t the only tool that can password-protect attachments. The aforementioned 7-Zip can password-protect zip files. But if you’re already in Folder Lock, you can do it with a couple clicks of the mouse. This feature alone, however, is not a reason to purchase Folder Lock.

Make wallets

Keep all kinds of stuff in this password-protected space – like your credit card information.  This isn’t a feature I use; anything I would store in here I already have stored in LastPass.

Xtras and settings

With these buttons at the very top of the Folder Lock screen, you can do things like shred files, or go into “stealth mode” where it’s not obvious that you even have Folder Lock installed. When you go stealth, you’ll be asked to set a hotkey combination. That’s the keyboard combination you’ll use to run Folder Lock. Don’t forget that, either!

Conclusion

Up your security.  You’ll sleep better at night.

It’s Not About the Technology

It’s about how you use the technology.

I recently read author and commercial pilot Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential. His pet peeve: When people say “Planes can practically fly themselves.” He assures us that they cannot. He notes that the claim that technology is all that and a bag of chips is not unique to aviation. Smith quotes author and surgeon Atul Gawande from a New Yorker essay, “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology… But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.”

My favorite example is in construction. A nail gun is more efficient than a hammer. But if you don’t know how to actually build anything, the nail gun isn’t going to magically give you that knowledge. You will still build a crappy house, but you’ll do it faster.

It’s not all that different in education.

Except you don’t have to use technology at all to teach well. Years ago I had two colleagues who taught history. One was a brilliant lecturer; he could keep a class riveted for the entire hour. The other was a brilliant discussion leader; he could engage students, think on his feet, and get everyone to the same place at the end. I don’t think either of them ever so much as picked up a piece of chalk.

Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the lecture students could write or tell their own stories – or discuss the day’s lecture. Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the discussion students can continue their discussions – or write or tell their own stories. Technology can be used to enhance learning.

But every instructor who has tried a new technology with students knows that it’s not a Field of Dreams. If you build it, they may not come. If technology is being implemented with students, students will need some guidance in how to use it. And to the IT folks, the same goes for when you bring in a new technology. Don’t be surprised if faculty and staff don’t immediately glam onto it in droves.

A panel of instruments – in a cockpit, on medical equipment, in a course management system – needs someone skilled at using them to truly make them useful.

Much has been made of “digital natives” – people who have been raised on the internet and all the gadgets that come with it. Too much has been made of them. Remember the first word processing program you learned how to use? You figured out how to use the features that you needed. When you got your next word processing program, you figured out how to make your new program do what your old program could do. You probably didn’t take the time to learn the new features of the program – perhaps even promising yourself you’d look into it later. And now how many generations removed from that first program are you? I confess that I never bothered to learn “styles” in Microsoft Word. I see the style buttons at the top of the screen taking up a boatload of real estate, so I figure someone must be using them. They’re probably pretty useful. But honestly, I have never had a compelling reason to take the time.

Our students are the same way. A colleague related the following encounter that took place in her class.

Student: I completely forgot to do the assignment!

Instructor: Did you put it on your calendar?

Student: I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor: Don’t you have an iPhone?

Students: Yes, but I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor picks up student phone and taps the calendar icon. Calendar pops up.

Student: Wow!

Our younger students are masters at text messaging and music apps. If they haven’t had a need for using the other features of their phones, they may not know what they are. [And I bet there are some older smartphone owners who have mastered the calendar, but are now thinking, “Wait! I can play music on my phone?” Yes, yes you can.]

Take the time, right now, to decide what technology you’re going to try this week. It could be new technology or features you haven’t used in a technology you’ve been using for a while. As for me? I’m going to check out the MS Word styles buttons.

FollowUp.cc: Chrome Extension for Gmail

My favorite email reminder service, FollowUp.cc (see this blog post), has just added a new tool to their arsenal.

For those not familiar with the service, you send an email to, say, Tuesday@followup.cc, and Tuesday morning, you will receive that email. Jan12@followup.cc would return that email to you on January 12th. This is my “tickler” file. Anything I want to follow up on later gets sent to FollowUp.cc. I use this, for example, to remind me of conference registration deadlines. If early bird registration ends on October 30th, I’ll send a FollowUp email to Oct20@followup.cc with the body of the email containing the link to the conference registration page and any other information that I’d like to have later. If someone says that they need two weeks to get back to me, I’ll forward that email to 2w@followup.cc. In 2 weeks, that email will appear in my inbox. You can create recurring reminders, and there is Google calendar integration.

FollowUp.cc is one of the tools I use to achieve Inbox Zero.

But I digress.

What I really want to tell you about is FollowUp.cc’s new Chrome extension for Gmail.

Composing a new message

After installing the extension and reloading the Gmail webpage, when you compose a new message, you will see the FollowUp.cc toolbar.

Here I clicked “Days” and selected 2, then clicked the “@” symbol, and then clicked on “Time,” selecting 6pm. The extension rendered that as 2d-6pm@followup.cc and helpfully added that to the bcc line. Yes, I could have just typed that in myself, but I’m happy to let this extension do it for me. Since this message will be bcc’ed to FollowUp.cc, I can email whomever I’d like. That person gets the message, and in 2 days at 6pm, I will get that same message back as a reminder to do whatever I need to with it.

If you have a specific date you want the reminder for, click the calendar icon and select the date.

Replying to a message

Clicking “Reply +FollowUp” will add 1day@followup.cc to the bcc field. If you want a different day/time, click on an address in the To, cc, or bcc line to get the full toolbar. No need to delete the 1day@followup.cc address; clicking on the toolbar icons will change the address.

If you don’t want the default address to be 1day@followup.cc, you can change it by going to the FollowUp.cc menu at the very top of Gmail’s screen.

If FollowUp.cc is not at the top of screen…?

This was the problem I ran into. FollowUp.cc technical support (contact@followup.cc; very quick to respond and helpful!) suspects a conflict with another Chrome extension. Here was their excellent suggestion:

  1. Go into Chrome settings, click on Extensions. Scroll to the FollowUp.cc extension, and check the box that says “Allow in incognito.” Since most extensions don’t operate in incognito mode, this move effectively blocks all other extensions.
  2. Open an incognito window. Click on Settings and select “New incognito window” or use the keyboard shortcut: CTRL+Shift+N.
  3. Open Gmail in the incognito window. The FollowUp.cc option should now appear at the top of your Gmail window. Click on it to change the default address.
  4. Now you can close the incognito window and go back to normal browsing, happy with your default bcc FollowUp.cc address.

Conclusion

There is something very cool about getting emails from your past self at the very moment you need them. The Chrome Gmail extension makes this even easier to pull off.

 

Tweet2Cite: Twitter Citation Generator

With evolving modes of communication comes evolving means of citation. Tweet2Cite is a handy tool. Enter the URL for a tweet, and get the citation, in MLA or APA style.

Getting a URL for a tweet

This took a little effort to figure out. It’s not obvious.

In Twitter, under the tweet you would like to cite, click “Expand.”

Directly under the blue-fonted options, the time and date the tweet was sent will appear. To the right of that, click on “Details.”

This will open the tweet on its own webpage.

Copy the URL from the browser’s address bar. [Keyboard shortcut: CTRL+L will move your cursor to the address bar, highlighting the entire URL. CTRL+C to copy the selected text.]

Creating the citation

Paste the tweet’s URL in the box. [Keyboard shortcut: CTRL+V to paste.] Click “Go!”

Within seconds you will see the original tweet, and then the MLA and APA citations. Copy and paste to wherever you’d like to save the citation. [Keyboard shortcut: In Windows, place the cursor over a word. Double-clicking the mouse will select the word. Triple-clicking will select the paragraph. In this case, triple-click over a word in one of the citations to select the entire citation.]

Conclusion

This is indeed the citation format recommended by APAStyle.org and MLA.org. For APA style, the parenthetical citation would be (Twitter handle, year), in this case (Sue_Frantz, 2013). Remember, if you are citing multiple tweets from the same person in the same year, in your parenthetical citations letter the year as in (Sue_Frantz, 2013a), (Sue_Frantz, 2013b), etc.

Happy citing!

KeepVid: Save Online Videos

You like to show the occasional video in your class. Your favorite ones are online. And sometimes, just often enough, your classroom loses its internet connection. Or maybe one too many of your favorite videos have suddenly disappeared from the internet. To be on the safe side, you want to download the video to your own computer or flash drive so you can show it without needing internet access.

KeepVid is the tool for you. Visit the website, enter the web address for the video, and click “Download.”

When this service runs, your browser will warn you that you may be doing something dangerous. Assure it that you’re not. A list of file format options will appear. Pick the one you’d like. Your options will vary a bit depending on the nature of the video you’re downloading.

If you choose a file format that’s not compatible with, say, PowerPoint, use CloudConvert (see this post) to transform the video into a compatible file format. Which ones are compatible with PowerPoint? MP4 is fine depending on the software you have installed – specifically Apple’s QuickTime. I’d go with MP4. If it works on the computer you’ll be presenting on, great! If not, use CloudConvert to change the MP4 file to something safe, like WMV. (Mac users: MP4 should work with Keynote.)

Why would I choose MP3?

If you want just the audio from the video, select this option.

What’s SRT?

This is a file format used with subtitles. If your video is subtitled, this option will download the subtitles.

I chose “Download SRT” with a subtitled video of an Obama/Romney 2012 debate. This is what it looks like when I open the file in Word.

This is essentially reverse engineering how subtitles are added to video. You can use software to create subtitles just like this and merge the subtitles with the video. KeepVid lets you pull out the SRT subtitle file.

Add the bookmarklet to your browser.

On the KeepVid page, click on the box on the right and drag it up to your browser’s bookmarks toolbar.

When you’re on a webpage watching a video, and you decide you’d like to download it, just click the “KeepVid” link in your bookmark’s toolbar, and you will be redirected to the KeepVid homepage. The URL for the video will already be entered in the box. Just click “Download.”

Easy, right?

VLC Media Player: Take Stills from Video

The VLC Media Player is arguably the best video player out there. All the cool kids use it. And it’s free. It’s cross-platform. That means that whatever you’re running, e.g., Windows, Mac, Linus, Android, iOS, VLC Media Player will play.

While this media player has many more features than the average user will ever need, it has a few that are especially noteworthy.

Custom bookmarks

On the playback menu, you can add custom bookmarks to your video file. If you’re a keyboard shortcuts sort of person, CTRL+B.

The “Edit Bookmarks” window will open. Go to the spot in the video you want to bookmark, and click the “Create” button. Want to create additional bookmarks? Repeat as needed.

To navigate to a particular bookmark, double-click on it.

Jump to a specific time

If you’d rather not use bookmarks, and you know the time in the video you want to move to, on the playback menu select “Jump to Specific Time.” Or CTRL-T.

In the popup window that appears, enter the time and click “Go.”

Screenshots

Want to take screenshots from the video? On the video menu select “Take Snapshot.” The image file will automatically be saved in your pictures folder – or at least that’s where they are saved for me. The file path will flash briefly in the video window.

Each snapshot follows this naming convention: vlcsnap – today’s date – time in video.

To change the default location of where snapshots are stored, on the tools menu select “Preferences” (or CTRL+P).

In the popup window click on the video icon. At the bottom of the window, you can browse to the folder where you’d like all future video snapshots to go. If you don’t like vlcsnap as the prefix amended to the filename of the image, change it to something else. You have two choices for image filetype: png (default) or jpg. For saving images from video, jpg is probably a better file format. Read more about the difference.


Hotkeys

While you’re in preferences, click on the hotkeys icon (bottom left). Here you can see all of the keyboard shortcuts and change them to your liking. My favorite: Space to pause the video; space to resume play. No fumbling with the mouse!

Faster/Slower

Want to skim the video? On the playback menu, mouse over speed, and select “Faster (fine)” or just plain “Faster.” “Faster (fine)” will increase the speed in smaller increments. Every time you click on it, the video will speed up by a tenth – 1.1 times faster, 1.2, 1.3, etc. Clicking on “Faster” jumps you to 1.5 times faster, then 2.0, then 2.5. Keyboard shortcuts are very handy here. As the video is playing, to speed it up slowly, “Faster (fine)”, use ]. To slow down slowly, use [. To do the big jump “Faster,” use +; “Slower,” use -. Interestingly, on my keyboard, the + sign up with the numbers didn’t work, but the + on the numeric keypad did. And = will return the video to it’s normal playing speed.


Conclusion

Try it out. Our IT people have it installed on all of our campus computers. You may already have it and don’t know it.

Bonus

Watch the video featured in this post.

 

 

CloudConvert: File Conversion Service

CloudConvert “supports the conversion between more than 100 different audio, video, document, ebook, archive, image, spreadsheet and presentation formats.”

Navigate through your folder system to the file you want to covert. Click once on the file’s icon and drag it onto the CloudConvert webpage. Or if your file lives in Dropbox or Google Drive, click the “Select files” button to find the file you want to convert.

When you click “Select format” CloudConvert detects what kind of file it is to determine your options for what kind of file you can convert it to. Here I uploaded a docx file, so CloudConvert has given me two main choices: Document and ebook. When I mouse over ebook, I get a dropdown menu of the 8 file types that can work with ebook software.

I chose epub. In the last step, “convert it,” I can choose to have CloudConvert email when the conversion is complete, or I can have the file saved directly to Dropbox or Google Drive. If you choose the email option, CloudConvert will ask for your email address. If you choose Dropbox or Google Drive, a popup window will ask for your permission to use your chosen service and to add a folder inside of that service called CloudConvert.

Finally click the big red “Start Conversion” button.

If you chose email as your notification option, you will get an email with a download link.

If you chose Dropbox as your file save location, the CloudConvert folder will be inside of your Apps folder. If you don’t already have an Apps folder, one will automatically be created. Dropbox folder -> Apps folder -> CloudConvert folder -> YourConvertedFile.

If you choose Google Drive as your file save location, the converted file will be saved in your root folder. Google Drive -> YourConvertedFile.

After the file has been converted, CloudConvert marks the file with a green “Finished” icon with a message about what they did with the file (“Sent file into your Dropbox). To the far right is a green “Download” button. You can manually download the converted file here, or more interestingly, you can convert either the input file (Pocket.docx in this example) or the output file (Pocket.epub) into another file format without having to upload the file again. You can even get a QR code for quick downloading to your smartphone or tablet.

Limitations

You are welcome to use CloudConvert as a guest. If you register for a free account, you are allowed more conversions per day and a bigger maximum file size. CloudConvert is currently in beta, so perhaps there will be a pay-for version that will give you even more power. You can see the difference between what guests and registered users can do in the chart below.

The “storage time of converted files” only matters if you choose the “email me” notification option. If you asked that the converted file be saved to Dropbox or Google Drive, it will be saved in that location as soon as CloudConvert does the conversion; it doesn’t matter how long CloudConvert keeps a copy.


Compare to Zamzar

My go-to file conversion service has been Zamzar, but CloudConvert is a compelling alternative. The ability to have files automatically saved to Dropbox or Google Drive is reason enough to try CloudConvert.

Better

“So find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

This is the final paragraph in Atul Gawande’s 2007 book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. While his advice is directed at newly-minted physicians, it’s more broadly applicable. In our case, let’s talk higher education.

1. “Find something new to try, something to change.”

You’re reading this blog. That puts you solidly in the camp of people who are interested in trying new things. Not all new things are better, of course. What works for me may not work for you. But if you don’t try new things, how will you know?

2. “Count how often you succeed and how often you fail.”

Gawande writes about Virginia Apgar, a physician (anesthesiologist) who created a scoring system (rubric) for evaluating the health of newborns, now known as the Apgar score. “Published in 1953 to revolutionary effect, the score turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept – the condition of new babies – into numbers that people could collect and compare. Using it required more careful observations and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores – and therefore better outcomes – for the newborns they delivered.”

The Apgar score improved neonatal care. The act of measuring was enough to prompt changes that resulted in better outcomes. The behavioral change research tells us that’s exactly what we should expect to happen. If you want to change a behavior, the first thing you need to do is track how often you do/don’t do it. Want to exercise more? Track how often you exercise. Want to eat better? Track what you eat.

This is what the push for assessment in higher education is about. What outcomes are important to us? Let’s measure those outcomes; think of these as Apgar scores for each of our students. If we’re not happy with those scores, we can see which parts of the rubric are bringing our scores down, and then refer back to #1, “Find something new to try, something to change.” And this is why I strongly advocate for classroom level assessments as opposed to something at the college level. I can change something I’m doing with my students. If the college learns that our students are scoring in the 60th percentile on a standardized test, say on critical thinking, I don’t know what to do with that information. My students might be improving over the course of a term on critical thinking, but when assessed at the college level I can’t see that.

3. “Write about it.”

We need to share what we learn, where you share doesn’t much matter. Present at a conference. Write for a newsletter. Create your own blog. Send what you learn to your professional listservs. Sharing gives others something to try. I’ve also found that writing helps me sort through my thoughts and disentangle the mess that they often create.

There’s a movement afoot to get more people involved in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL – pronounced sew-toll). A lot of us are doing #1 (find something to change) and #2 (counting how often we succeed/fail), but we need to do more #3, sharing what we’re learning.

4. “Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

Gawande brings this up in the context of making a connection with others, e.g., patients, nurses, other hospital employees by asking “unscripted” questions – “Where did you grow up?”, “What made you move to Boston?” Anything, really. While we all have our roles, it’s nice to remember that we’re all people first and foremost. Chat with your students before class. I know you’re busy. I know you’re rushed. But is it time to rethink priorities? That email you want to get sent off before you go to class will still be there when you get back. It’s not life and death. It’s just higher education. Email can wait. In fact, that’s what email was designed for – something that can wait until you have time to get to it.

The value of unscripted conversations also applies to our colleagues. I work in a very collegial department, but our collegiality is not an accident. Like any relationship, collegiality needs to be tended to. We meet, on average, every couple weeks – on Fridays, and our meetings typically last 2 to 3 hours. It’s not because we have that much official business to cover – generally we don’t get through our modest agenda as it is – but because we all value the camaraderie. We talk about our week’s trials and tribulations both in and out of the classroom. We seek and share advice on dealing with particularly difficult students. We discuss how we approach different topics in our courses. We discuss new assignments we’re trying and how those seem to be going. Yes, of course, we’re not working in utopia. Sometimes we get irritated with each other, but our frequent meetings let us work through those rough spots quickly.

Finally, #5. This is my suggestion, not Gawande’s. Read widely.

You never know where you’ll find inspiration.

As we begin a new academic year, what are you going to do to get better?

Clipping Magic: Delete the Background from Images

It’s time to clean up the graphics you use in your presentations or on your website/course management system. Remove the content you don’t want; only keep what you do want.

Clipping Magic makes it about as easy as you can imagine for removing content, say, the background, from photos. Drag and drop the photo you want to edit. Mark green for what you want to keep. Mark red for what you want deleted. Zoom in or use a smaller brush size to get in the corners.

You can change the background. I’ve chosen transparent for my example, but you can choose from a small palette of solid colors.

When you have your photo looking nice and pretty, click the “Download” button. That’s it.

Here’s the final result from my project – I don’t think it took me much longer than 5 minutes.

Clipping Magic is currently in Alpha (that means it’s really in the beginning stages of development) and free (because it’s in Alpha). While you can use it without a log in, sign up now to “get freebies when the service comes out of alpha!”

[Photo: This is my lovely wife, a Wisconsin native, during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.]