Aug 162009

Xobni allows me to quickly find email messages, attached files, and contact information for anyone who has ever emailed me. With the large number of students each term as well as various committee responsibilities and other collaborative projects, Xobni has made managing the onslaught of email much easier! For example, when I agree to write a letter of recommendation for a student, I turn to Xobni to call up all previous emails and files exchanged with that student. Within those I often find specific examples I can use in writing the letter.

Most of Xobni‘s functionality can be found in its free version. For a one-time $29.95 fee, you can upgrade to Xobni Plus which gives you a bit more power. Everything in this post, I believe, is included in the free version. Click here to see a comparison between Xobni and Xobni Plus. (If you tried Xobni before, you may have found that it slowed Outlook down when starting. With improvements, Xobni doesn’t slow it down as much. It’s worth trying again.)

This is what my Outlook inbox looks like. Xobni occupies the fourth column. Whatever message is selected, Xobni displays the information for that sender. In this case, I’ve emailed myself and have that message selected, so my information is displayed. This is my Xobni profile as it appears in my Outlook.

Xobni gives me all sorts of information about the sender, e.g., contact information such as email addresses and phone numbers. I have the Facebook icon selected so I get the sender’s most recent status update (assuming the sender and I are Facebook ‘friends’ or the sender’s Facebook profile is public).

Selecting the other icons in the center of the image above produces a wealth of information.

Analytics. This graphic shows how many emails I’ve sent and received and when I’ve received them. If I had someone else selected in Xobni, I would see how many emails I have sent them, how many they have sent me, and when they have sent them.

Actions. Clicking the orange ‘actions’ icon allows me to email the person. (Remember, Xobni displays the information for any person whose email you have selected in your inbox.) If I click “Email Sue,” a new message pops up with the email address already filled in. If I click “Schedule a time with Sue,” Xobni not only opens a new email message, but it also accesses my Outlook calendar, automatically enters my free times for the next 5 working days, enters my standard sign off and signature information. Very handy!

LinkedIn. Click the LinkedIn icon to call up information from the person’s LinkedIn profile.

Hoovers. provides public information about companies. If the person works for a company in the Hoovers database, the Hoovers button gives me a snapshot of the organization. When I receive email from someone who works at APA, this is what Xobni gives me. Clicking “view more” at the bottom takes me to the Hoovers page for APA.

Further down. In the bottom half of the Xobni column, I get a list of people associated with the email sender in the “Network” area. When I send or receive email from a particular person, this box identifies who has been cc’ed on those various emails. Selecting one of them replaces the current Xobni profile with the profile of the person I have selected.

In the “Conversations” box, I get a list of all of the emails, clumped by subject line, I have exchanged with the person whose profile is displayed. Each threaded conversation is dated with the most recent first. Mousing over a conversation thread, like I’ve done here, produces a pop up window with a preview of the messages in the thread.

If I select the thread, the Xobni person profile is replaced with more detailed information.

Then if I select a message within the thread, I can choose to open the message in Outlook or reply to the message directly from Xobni. Any time I want to go back, I just hit the “Back” button. If I want to go all the way back to the beginning, to the original profile where I started, I click “Start Over.”

There’s a very similar process for “Files Exchanged.” Here I get a list of the files I’ve exchanged with that person, both ones I’ve sent and received. Mousing over the file name gives me information from the email the file came with as well as information about the file itself. Double clicking the file name will open the file.

In the “Appointments” area I can see what upcoming appointments I have scheduled for the person whose Xobni profile I’m viewing. (Remember, to view a Xobni profile, just select the person’s email in Outlook.)

Search. With all of that said, the Xobni feature I cannot live without is search. In the search box, enter your search term, and Xobni will search people, email messages, appointments, and tasks. (In the free version, for messages, Xobni will only search subject lines and will search your current Outlook messages plus one archive file. Xobni Plus will search the message body in both your current Outlook messages and in an unlimited number of archive files.)

Download Xobni. Try it out. It’s free!

UPDATE (5/7/2010). Xobni released version 1.9 on April 14, 2010.  The functionality is pretty much the same, but the user interface looks a little different.  Xobni also now collects URLs exchanged between you and the person whose information you are looking at.

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Aug 112009

Even with a whole host of new technologies out there, for communicating with people at a distance, email remains my lifeline. For work email, I use MS Outlook, as I have for years. I always wished it would work how I wanted it to work. TechHit’s SimplyFile gets me closer.

I can file an email message in its appropriate folder with a click of a button (or keyboard shortcut). I can create a task from an email message. I can turn an email message into an appointment in my calendar. I can make a message disappear from my inbox for a designated period of time, and then have it reappear on its own later.

SimplyFile is an Outlook addin. (Try it free for 30 days. After that, it’s $39.95.) I tried it for 30 days, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the price. I uninstalled it. After not having it for an hour, I pulled out my credit card. It made my email time so much more efficient, I couldn’t go back to my pre-SimplyFile way of doing things. The software is so easy to use, there’s really nothing to learn. Truly.

The toolbar. There are two ways to access the SimplyFile toolbar. If I’m viewing messages in the main Outlook window, I can use the bottom-most toolbar in this image.

If I’ve opened a message, the toolbar appears here:

Filing messages. When I have a message selected in Outlook, SimplyFile takes a guess at which folder I’d like to move it based on where I’ve put similar messages in the past. If I want to put the selected message in the ‘OTRP’ folder, all I need to do is click ‘File Message’ or use the keyboard shortcut Alt+M. If that isn’t the right folder, clicking the drop down arrow in the folder box gives you SimplyFile’s next best guesses.

The first ones are SimplyFile’s top 5 guesses. The next 20 are good choices. If I don’t like any of those options, I click ‘<Select/Create folder>’ to select/create a new folder.

Did you accidentally file the message in the wrong folder? Click ‘Undo File’ to pull the message back into your main inbox. Just like using undo in Word, you can undo the filing of several messages. (I don’t know how many can be undone; I have only had occasion to undo 5 or so in a row.)

This list shows all main folders and their subfolders listed together. If you’d like to see the folder paths, you can change that setting in SimplyFile’s options menu.



Task it. When I get an email that requires some action on my part, I ‘task it.’ This not only calls up Outlook tasks, but it embeds the message in the task. For example, let’s say I open the following message.





All I need to do is click ‘Task It,’ and SimplyFile opens a new Outlook task. The subject line from the original email is the subject line for the task. Change it if you’d like. The body of the email is reproduced in the body of the task. Also feel free to edit this space at will. Double clicking the envelope at the bottom of the body will open the original email message.







Schedule it. Open an email. Click ‘Schedule It.’ Outlook opens a new Outlook appointment. Like a task, the email’s subject line becomes the appointment’s subject line. The email’s body is copied into the appointment’s body. Double-clicking the envelope at the bottom opens the original email. You will need to change the date and time. SimplyFile isn’t smart enough (yet?) to pull the date and time out of the body of the message.

If there were other recipients of this message, they all would be included when I click ‘Scheduling.’

If moving your mouse to click ‘Schedule It’ isn’t fast enough for you, in SimplyFile’s options, you can create a hotkey that will allow you to turn an email into an appointment without your fingers leaving your keyboard.



Snooze it. Have a message in your inbox that you don’t need to deal with right now? But you want to get it out of your way? Hit the snooze button.

For any message, when you click ‘Snooze It’ this dialog box appears. The default is 7 days, but change the days/hours/minutes to whenever you’d like. The message will disappear, then like magic it will reappear in your inbox at the time you designated.

To do this, SimplyFile creates a ‘SimplyFile’ folder in your inbox with a ‘Snooze’ subfolder where it holds your snoozed email messages until the time expires.

If you’d like to see what’s snoozing, just open that folder. If you’d like to de-snooze a message, just drag it back into your main inbox folder.

Try it.
Download SimplyFile and try it out for 30 days for free. If you uninstall it and go back to your current way of handling email, let me know how you managed it!

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Jun 272009

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone to read to you? Like, that article you’ve been meaning to get to? Or student papers? What if you not only had someone to read it to you, but you could take the recording with you to listen to while you work out or on your daily commute?

Check out Read The Words.

Give it any text, either by typing it in, uploading a file, giving it a URL or the address of an RSS feed. The file will be converted to audio. There are several different avatars (voices) you can choose from including a British accent and an Indian accent. You can adjust the reading speed of the avatar to match your listening speed.

For students who are learning English, they can have the written English text in front of them while they listen to the audio for practice with pronunciation. For students who are learning Spanish or French, they can have Spanish or French text read by a Spanish or French speaking avatar.

Once the file has been created, you can download it as an MP3, send it as part of an email, or embed the file in a webpage like I have done here.

The free version of the service allows you to have 3 recordings saved on their server with up to 30 seconds of speaking time per file. For $19.99 a year you get 25 recordings saved on their server of up to an hour of reading time per recording. For $34.99 per year, you get 100 recordings saved and the recording time is upped to 8 hours per file.  If you download the file, you can delete it from your library on their server to free up more space for more files.

If you try it out, let me know how it works for you!

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Jun 192009

One of the things I like about Outlook is the ability to flip through everyone’s schedule to find a likely meeting time. But when everyone isn’t in the same Outlook system, we end up having to find a time via email. You write, “When can you meet?” And the 7 people you’re trying to get together send you an email back some with when they’re available and some when they’re not available. You then have the fun and excitement of creating a matrix that will show the best time for everybody.

Or perhaps you have students schedule time to meet with you one on one? Want to find an easier option than a sheet of paper circulated around the room or taped to your office door? Or maybe you want to schedule time with your online students and that sheet of paper just doesn’t work at all?

Or maybe you have students writing research papers and you want to limit what the paper topics are and how many students can write about each topic?


The instructions are simple. “Create a poll.” “Forward the link to the poll to the participants.” “Follow online what the participants vote for.” “Free. No registration required.” Even though you don’t have to register I recommend that you do. Registering allows you easy access to all of your polls in one place, both the ones you’ve created and the ones you’ve participated in, through the ‘MyDoodle’ link.

First let’s walk through the process of setting up a poll to schedule a conference call. At the end of this blog I’ll discuss using Doodle to set up student conference schedules and how to use Doodle to manage students and their research paper topics.

At clicking ‘schedule an event’ produces this screen. Type in a title, an optional description, your name, and your email address. If you registered and are logged in, your name and email address are automatically entered.

Clicking the ‘next’ button at the bottom of the page (not pictured) produces this date selection page. Since this is a conference call for July 13th, I only selected July 13th. You may choose as many dates as you’d like. Just click on each date to select it. To deselect a date, you may either click the date in the calendar again or click the red X next to the date in the ‘selected dates’ area. The arrows next to ‘July 2009’ allow you to change months.

Click ‘next’ at the bottom of the page (again, not shown). Now we can choose our times. Doodle is quite flexible in terms of how you can enter times.

Here I’ve clicked the links to ‘enable time-zone support’ and ‘add further time slots.’ I’ve chosen my time zone, and I’ve entered some times. Notice that if I had more than one day available for the conference call, there would be an additional row for that day. Once I had selected the times for the first day I could copy and paste those times into each subsequent row using the ‘copy and paste first row’ option.

When I click ‘Finish,’ Doodle will send me two emails. The first contains a participant link that I will send out to my conference call participants. The second contains an administrative link that will allow me to edit or delete the poll. If I’m registered, I can also access the administrative features by logging into and clicking on ‘MyDoodle.’

This is what the poll looks like after I’ve entered the times that I’m available. If you’re not in the Pacific time zone, you can choose your time zone, and click ‘update.’ Doodle will change the time to match your time zone. Just type your name in the empty box, check the times that you’re available, and click ‘save.’ That’s it!

You can go back into your poll and edit it whenever you’d like by using the administrator link. If you change the time options after someone has already participated, little question marks will appear in those time slots for each participant. This means that you don’t know whether the participants who have already participated would have chosen those new options over the ones they did choose. Email your participants to let them know that you changed the options and that they can re-vote.

You may have noticed that on the last screen, before we hit ‘finished’ there was an ‘options’ button.

‘Yes-No-Ifneedbe Poll’ allows your participants to choose ‘if need be’ instead of just yes or no. Very handy!

‘Hidden poll’ is self-explanatory.

‘Only you can modify/delete votes and comments’ disallows your participants from modifying or deleting their own votes and comments. Note that the only participants who can modify or delete their own votes and comments are those who have registered with

‘Limit number of OKs per participants (row) to 1.’ We wouldn’t want to do this for our scheduling poll since the goal is to find times that work for everyone. But there may be a poll where you’d want everyone to choose only one option.

‘Limit number of OKs per option (column).’ If you were organizing an event where you needed two volunteers for each time slot, this feature would be handy. Click that option then in the ‘limit’ box, type 2.

Student conferences

Do you hold individual conferences with students? Create a scheduling poll with your available time divided into 15-minute time slots. Under ‘options,’ select ‘limit number of OKs per option (column)’ and ‘limit number of OKs per participant (row) to 1’ so that students can only sign up for one time slot.

Here is what such a poll might look like.

Notice that once a participant has selected a time slot, that time slot is not available for anyone else. The scroll bar on the bottom allows participants to scroll to the right to see more days.

Student research papers

Not only can Doodle manage scheduling, but it can manage any kind of straight-forward poll.

To create this poll on the main page, I selected “make a choice.” I put in the topics choices and using ‘options’ I limited students to only one topic, but up to 4 students can choose each topic.

In conclusion

If you’ve used Doodle or if you decide to try it, let me know how you’re using it and how it works for you!

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May 072009

UPDATED 6/24/2012 
Have a tablet?  You can go this route instead. 

There you are in class and you write on your whiteboard (or chalkboard, I hear those still exist) the most perfect explanation of whatever it is you explain. Wouldn’t you love to be able to save that to share with future students? Or perhaps you’re part way through the material you want to cover when class ends. Don’t you wish you could save what you’ve written so you could start there next class? Do you find that the linearity of PowerPoint is starting to wear you down? Wouldn’t you love to just point at a spot on the screen and zip to the slide you want? Or wouldn’t it be nice to access the internet without moving from the front of the room? Don’t you wish you had a few thousand dollars laying around for a smartboard?

This is me writing on the screen using an infrared pen. The displayed program is Classroom Presenter.

What if I told you that you can have all of the functionality above for about $40 (assuming you already have a projector and a computer)?Wii remote: $30Trip to Radio Shack: $7.50*

Dried up dry erase marker: free

Simulated smartboard: priceless

If your computer is not Bluetooth enabled, you’ll need a USB Bluetooth dongle (that’s what they’re called, I swear!): $3

If you already have a Wii remote, then that’s free. The price of this project just dropped to practically nothing!

*This cost does not include the $8 soldering kit, the $7 for the spools of wire, and because some parts are sold in pairs, you’ll probably want to make two pens.

Before we play MacGyver, I’m going to send you to watch Johnny Lee show you how this works in a 5-minute TED talk video. If you like what you see, come back, and I’ll get you set up with everything you need.

[Seriously, go watch the video.]

We’re going to use a Wii remote to act as the conduit between your classroom’s screen and your computer. We’re going to use an infrared pen to tell the Wii remote what to tell the computer. In short, we’re going to do what Lee did. If you combine this Wii remote setup with Classroom Presenter (see my 4/14/2009 blog post), you will have a powerful interactive whiteboard.

What you need.

1. Wii remote. That’s easy. You can use the one that came with your Wii – you’re not going to do anything to it other than tote it to class. It will still work just the same way with your Wii system. You don’t have a Wii system? You can buy a Wii remote wherever game systems are sold.

2. Infrared pen. This is a little harder. You can order them online from $8 to $30. IRPensOnline and Penteractive are two such sites [Update: Some sellers have pressure-activated pens if you’d rather not use a thumb switch]. (Disclaimer: I haven’t used either retailer. Sites are provided only for informational purposes.) Or you can make your own (thus the trip to Radio Shack). I used the instructions from Ken Moore of Ken Moore Design. He includes a how-to video, written instructions, and a (printable) Radio Shack shopping list complete with part numbers. I opted to use a dried up EXPO dry-erase marker because we seem to have those in abundance. You know where to find them. In your classroom, it’s usually the first one you pick up. Because some of the parts you need are sold in pairs it makes sense to make two pens. You should always have a back-up anyway.

Tips for making the pen.

a. Ken’s shopping list doesn’t include wire. I used 22-gauge – definitely something on the smaller side is better. Wires have to be stuffed into the marker with the battery holder so the smaller they are, the easier everything fits.

b. When he says that force is needed to get the LED holder into the tip of the marker, he is not joking. I used a drill to bore the tip to make it a little wider, particularly around the opening. I think this made it easier for the threads of the LED holder to bite. Once they did, screwing it in wasn’t hard. Lots of force to get it started. Seriously.

c. For my pen, small, needle-nose pliers will be needed to change the battery. I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

d. One person recommended a daub of super glue to hold the LED in place in the holder – not a bad idea.

e. Since the LED is infrared, by definition, you can’t see it when it’s lit. Please remember this after you followed the instructions to the letter, push the switch, and nothing seems to happen. Dig out your digital camera or flip on your cell phone’s camera, press the pen’s switch, and look at it with your camera. If your pen is working, you’ll see the light through your camera’s viewfinder.

Here’s my pen. Notice the bulge in the plastic at the tip? That gives you a sense of the amount of force needed to get the LED holder in. (Kudos to EXPO for using high quality plastic in their products!)

3. Smoothboard software. This is what allows your Wii remote to talk to your computer. It’s not the only software out there, but it has a lot of functionality so it’s the one I recommend. It’s free for educational use, but when you run it, you’ll have to wait 10-15 seconds before the “continue unregistered version” option becomes available. If you like the software, send them $30 to register it.In this blog post, I’m going to just talk about the basic setup, but know that with Smoothboard, you can use a second Wii remote placed in a different spot for redundancy (if you’re standing in front of one, the other one can still ‘see’ the screen; this may also reduce the choppiness that sometimes happens, but I haven’t tried it) or you can use a second one as a ‘presenter’ tool. The latter seems like too much work to me, but you can read the Smoothboard manual and decide for yourself.

[Mac users: Here’s Mac-compatible software.]

4. Classroom Presenter. Okay, this isn’t necessary, but it makes a great smartboard! This free (PC) software (courtesy of the Center for Collaborative Technologies at the University of Washington) was designed for use with TabletPCs. But, when projected on the classroom screen, it gives you terrific smartboard functionality. Of course anything that’s on your computer screen will show up on your classroom screen, but imagine having this:

Load your PowerPoint into Classroom Presenter. Take your infrared pen and, in the toolbar, ‘tap’ the pencil, and write on the slide. Change colors. Switch to the highlighter. Erase individual marks or the entire screen. Quickly ‘tap’ any of the slides on the right to show a new slide. Open a blank screen. When you’re done, save your file, and open it again next class. Or you can save it as html and upload it to your website, course management system, or email to your students. If your computer is WiFi-enabled or is connected to a WiFi network, students with (PC) laptops who are running Classroom Presenter can see your slides on their computer, get your annotations in real time, make their own annotations, and save the file at the end of class. And they can send slides to you in real time, and you can display them for the class. But I digress. For more on this program, again, see my 4/14/2009 blog post.

The classroom setup.

1. Connect your Wii remote to your computer via Bluetooth. Open your computer’s Bluetooth manager, and tell it you’d like to connect a new device. Put your Wii remote in ‘discoverable’ mode. To do this, press and hold the 1 and 2 buttons at the same time. As long as the lights are blinking, it’s ready to be discovered. It will appear in your list as Nintendo RVL-CNT-01. Any time you want to connect your Wii remote, press and hold those 1 and 2 buttons again and then double-click your new Nintendo option in your Bluetooth manager. Presto. It’s connected.

2. Turn on your classroom projector. Once your computer’s screen is displayed, you’re ready to go.

3. Place your Wii remote. This will require a little trial and error to find the best location.

a. To the right or left? Consider how you usually write on the board. You don’t want your back between the pen and the Wii remote. (Better yet, use two remotes, one on each side. Or you can have one remote in closer; that should give greater precision to your writing in the area covered by that closer remote.)

b. How far away? One suggestion, based on a little research, is to take the height of your screen and double it. That’s the distance away from the screen you should place your Wii remote. For example, if your screen is 4 feet high, then your Wii remote should be placed 8 feet away. In my classroom, that worked great. (When I was farther away, the infrared light was too hard for the Wii remote to pick up, and my nice curved line started jumping around all over the place.)

c. How high? The first few times I did this, I found that I tended to point the remote too low. Aim for the middle of the screen. On a desk, I flipped a table-top podium on its side, set 2 textbooks on top of that and then propped a whiteboard eraser under the front of the remote to angle it up a bit. That worked perfectly. Of course a tripod works, too. (Penteractive sells a replacement battery cover for the Wii remote that has a tripod mount built into it.)

4. Run the Smoothboard software. The first thing you need to do is calibrate it. Just press the A button on the Wii remote. Here is the calibration screen:

Notice the circle with the crosshairs in the top left corner? Walk up to your classroom’s screen, put the tip of your infrared pen in the center of the circle, and press the switch. If it’s in your Wii remote’s line of sight, the circle will disappear and then reappear in the top right corner. Repeat this process for all 4 corners. If the circle doesn’t disappear, make sure you’re not standing between the pen and the remote. If you’re not in the way, then that spot is not covered by the Wii remote, and you’ll need to adjust the remote.

This is the Smoothboard interface that shows the battery level on your Wii remote. You can also choose whether you want to use the remote as a whiteboard (which is what we’re using it for) or as a presentation device. I haven’t tried this latter use, so I’ll leave that for someone else to write about.

The “Cursor Control Toolbar” puts a little floating toolbar on your screen. Clicking those buttons allows you to do things like mimic a mouse right-click. Very handy.

The gray box at the bottom shows the area covered by the Wii remote. The white space shows the area you’re using. The more white space within the gray box, the better. This is telling me that I won’t be able to access the very bottom left of the screen because it’s outside the gray box.

5. Run Classroom Presenter, or whatever other software you’d like. Your infrared pen, when the switch is pressed, now acts like a mouse controlling your cursor. Open programs. Open websites. Write on the screen. Anything you can do with a mouse, you can now do with your infrared pen.

Word of caution.


Writing takes some getting used to. To print words, press the button on the pen, draw your line, stop pressing the button. Repeat for each line. If you write in cursive, you’ll likely have an easier time since each word is one big line. Precision isn’t this tool’s strong point. Think of it as writing with a crayon.

In conclusion…


If you have the money, by all means go with a smartboard or a TabletPC. If you’re looking for some impressive functionality for a cost that is almost covered by the change in your couch, it’s worth trying out.

If you decide to give this a whirl, let me know how it goes!

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May 052009

Looking for a new font for your syllabus? Tired of Times New Roman?

This is a practical and simple idea. The website Flipping Typical identifies 60 fonts on your computer and displays them all at once. Type in whatever you’d like to see and that text will be displayed in those fonts. Want to see it in bold or italics? Highlight the text, then CTRL-B for bold and CTRL-I for italics.

If you want to change the font at the top of the screen, either click on the font you want from the list below or click in the black box and type in the font of interest.

The site doesn’t bring in all of your fonts; I don’t know how it selects the ones it does. However, if you type a font you have in the black bar, it will add it to your default list. The next time you visit the site, that font will appear in your list of fonts.

Clicking “A-Z” on the far left of the black bar will order your fonts alphabetically.

And that’s all there is to it. Amazingly simple.

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Apr 242009

I feel like I spend a lot of time typing the same phrases over and over again. For instance, when students send me an assignment via email, I send them back a ‘got it’ message. When I send them their graded assignment, I write a ‘your assignment is attached’ message. Isn’t there a keyboard shortcut that will do that for me?

With PhraseExpress, there is.

My preference in this blog goes to free programs and services, and this one technically is. However, if the program thinks you’re a business (by identifying certain business-like words) it will start to give you an annoying little popup prompting you to purchase it. The popups bugged me so much that I uninstalled it, but I missed the features so much, I re-installed it and sent the company the money. A decision I have not regretted.

PhraseExpress works wherever you type text – in email, in Word, in Excel, in your browser’s search box.

What it does.

  1. It automatically enters text. When I type #g followed by a space, it automatically replaces ‘#g’ with ‘Got it!,’ the message I send to my students when I receive their emailed assignments. When I send back their graded assignments, I just type #gr followed by a space and it replaces it with ‘Your graded assignment is attached! – Sue.’This is fully customizable. You can decide what keystroke combination will generate the phrase you want. For instance, I could choose $student followed by a ‘Tab’ to generate a phrase. There doesn’t appear to be a limit on the phrase size. You can use it to produce several lines with just a few keystrokes.
  2. It automatically runs programs. For me, #word automatically runs MS Word, #xl opens Excel, and #calc opens the calculator. Again, you choose the keystroke combination that you want. Perhaps you have your browser open and you want to open PowerPoint, and you designated #ppt as the magic keystroke combination. In your browser’s address bar, type #ppt and PowerPoint will automatically run.
  3. It automatically opens folders and files. With #md I open my “my documents” folder from anywhere I can type. I can also ask it to open a particular file — #grades opens my grade spreadsheet in Excel.
  4. It automatically does web searches. Highlighting any text anywhere and hitting CTRL-F8 generates this ‘search’ popup. If I select ‘’ then the highlighted text (buried under the popup) will be run in a Google search. The search services listed are customized; you pick what websites you want as options.

5. It automatically keeps a clipboard cache. Usually when you copy and paste, you can only paste the most recent copy. With the PhraseExpress clipboard cache, CTRL-ALT-v gives you a list of your 20 most recent copies. Just click the one you want. If 20 is too many for you, you can change the PhraseExpress settings to give you less.

6. It automatically opens a calendar. Select a date, and the date is entered as text. For instance, typing #cal gives me this popup. When I click on a date, the date is entered where I was typing. In the PhraseExpress settings, you determine the format for the date. I have mine set so that if I selected the date highlighted below, “5/7/2009” would be entered where I had typed #cal and the popup calendar would disappear. If I just wanted today’s date entered, #date would do that. For that matter, if I wanted to enter the current time, #time or #now would paste the current time.

7. It automatically opens websites. Let’s say I’m typing along in Word, like I’m doing now, and I wonder, “What’s new?” I can type cnn, and PhraseExpress will open the CNN website in my default web browser.

8. This is not a comprehensive list. Visit their website for more.

One application

With all of the examples above, you get a sense of what PhraseExpress can do. I want to give you one more example that’s a little fancier that really shows its power.

Let’s say I wanted to send reminders out to my students about due dates for upcoming assignments. [Actually, this isn’t something I would do, but I can see where someone would.]  By typing !due PhraseExpress asks me to pick a date, and then it generates an email in Outlook with my students’ email addresses entered, with “Psych 100: Next assignment due” in the subject line, and some appropriate text and due date in the body of the message. All I have to do is hit ‘send.’ The next time I type !due, I can send the same message to the same students but have a different date.

To do this, inside PhraseExpress, I click “New Phrase” then “Add Macro” then “Automation” and finally “Create an email.”

That generates this popup:

In the To: box I’d put my student email addresses, of course. (Actually, I’d put my email address in the “to” box and put my students’ email addresses in the “bcc” box.)

When I click “OK,” in the “phrase content” space, I get this scary looking bit of code:

{#mail -to, -subject Psych 100: Next assignment due -body Hi all,

Just a quick reminder that your next Psych 100 assignment is due…

Please contact me if you have any questions!}

I want to replace the ‘…’ after ‘due’ with a date I pick. So I delete the ‘…’ and then click “Add Macro” then “Phrase manipulation” then “Insert a phrase within another Phrase.”

Since I already have #cal opening a calendar for me, on the next screen I type ‘#cal’ and that is entered right after ‘due’ giving me this code:

{#mail -to, -subject Psych 100: Next assignment due -body Hi all,

Just a quick reminder that your next Psych 100 assignment is

due {#insert #cal}

Please contact me if you have any questions!}

After clicking “OK” my shortcut has been saved and is ready for use!

Since I’ve designated !due as my shortcut, when I type that, the calendar pops up, and I choose a date. In this example I chose May 7, 2009. And then Outlook opens this new message:

To recap, to send a due date reminder to my students, I type “!due” wherever I can type, click a date, and hit “send.” Done.

Next term, all I have to do is delete my student email addresses and enter the new ones.

Not perfect

As powerful as this program is, it’s not perfect. For instance, it works as a spellchecker, but its spellchecking isn’t as powerful as MS Word’s. It will tell me that I’ve misspelled ‘the’ when I type ‘teh,’ but I can misspell all sorts of words, and it doesn’t blink: spull, blunk, wirk.

It has an ‘autotext’ feature that I turned off because it got on my nerves. When PhraseExpress detects that you’ve typed the same phrase repeatedly, it will offer you that phrase when you type the first few words of it. The problem for me was the few words it was picking up on were the first few words I used in a lot of phrases (so I discovered). What it would offer wasn’t usually what I wanted.

When you type in your keyboard shortcut, like #cal, the PhraseExpress default is to ask you to hit “tab to execute.” I found always going to ‘tab’ bothersome, so I changed the default to “spacebar to execute.” That has worked better for me, except it’s tougher to get around if I don’t want to ‘execute.’ Under most circumstances, I do want the calendar to popup when I type “#cal” otherwise why would I type such a combination? But writing this blog was cumbersome since every time I would type a particular combination followed by the spacebar, PhraseExpress would execute the command. How dare it do what it’s supposed to do. (To get a command phrase like #cal to not run the calendar, I typed #cals in my sentence, then went back and deleted the ‘s.’)

For reasons I haven’t been able to discern, sometimes PhraseExpress just executes the command without asking if you that’s what you want to do. Generally, I’d prefer that it did it without asking, but I’d at least like to know why it sometimes asks and sometimes doesn’t. It may be that the program is just a little buggy. I don’t know.

Having said that, what PhraseExpress gives me makes these issues very minor ones.

In summary…

Anything you do repeatedly on your computer (type phrases, open programs, open files or folders, do web searches), you can ask PhraseExpress to do for you.

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Apr 182009

You’re sitting at home, and you come across an amazing website that you think is perfect for your students.  How do you get it out to them?

  1. I wait and tell them in class.
  2. I email them.
  3. I add an announcement to my course management system.
  4. I add a link to my website.
  5. I just bookmark it and let Delicious do the rest.

I mentioned in an earlier post that cloud computing is taking content off your computer and moving it up into the internet ‘cloud.’ You can take your bookmarks out of your browser and move them to where you can access them from any computer. (You’re already thinking how great it would be to have the same bookmarks on your home and office computer, aren’t you?) You can also decide which of those bookmarks you would like your students to have access to, and you can automatically post those bookmark updates to your website or your course management system.

And, yes, you can designate whether you’d like a particular bookmark to be public or private. Just because you can share doesn’t mean you have to!

Viewing bookmarks.

If you visit my Delicious bookmarks, where my online moniker is ripley32, this is pretty much what you would see. Because these are my bookmarks, I have the option to do things like edit and delete bookmarks that obviously visitors don’t have.

Here you can see my bookmarks, organized by date with the most recent at the top. The numbers in the blue boxes tell me how many other Delicious users have bookmarked that site. Three of these links have descriptions; I added those when I bookmarked them. Each also has ‘tags’ that I typed in on my own at the time I made the bookmark. On the far right you can see my tags. Tags just make for easy searching.

Let’s say that you were only interested in seeing the videos that I have bookmarked. Clicking the ‘video’ tag gives you just the 46 bookmarks that I tagged ‘video.’

Now I see just those ‘video’ bookmarks, and on the right I now get ‘related’ tags. I can see that 5 bookmarks that carry the video tag also carry the cognition tag. Clicking on ‘cognition’ will give me just those 5 videos that I said relate to cognition. If you did that, we’d go down one more level where you’d see that of the videos that are tagged video and cognition, there are 2 that are tagged ‘language.’ Clicking that tag would just give you those 2.

If you didn’t share your bookmarks with another soul, Delicious is incredibly valuable for organizing the dozens and dozens of bookmarks you have. Now is probably a good time to mention that Delicious makes it easy to move your bookmarks off your computer and into your Delicious account. After logging in, go to ‘Settings,’ and then upload your bookmarks. You can also download your bookmarks to your browser if you’re so inclined.

The social part of social bookmarking.

Do you have your RSS feed reader set up? (For more on RSS feed readers, see this blog post.) Let’s say that you’ve found my bookmarks so interesting that you want to know when I add something new. Scroll to the bottom of my bookmarks page and click ‘RSS feed for these bookmarks.’ Any bookmark I add will be sent to your RSS feed reader. If you’re only interested in hearing about new videos I bookmark, click on the ‘video’ tag, then scroll to the bottom of that page and click the RSS feed link. You’ll only hear about my new bookmarks that I’ve tagged ‘video.’ If you’re only interested in new video bookmarks that are cognition-related, click on ‘cognition’ under ‘related tags,’ then… you get the idea.

Saving new bookmarks.

Delicious makes it easy for you to save new bookmarks.

When you download the Delicious toolbar for Firefox or IE, two new icons are added to your navigation toolbar, just left of the URL. The blue one with the white stripe that looks like a bookmark takes you to your bookmarks. The other tag is for creating new bookmarks. Visit the page you want to bookmark, then click the ‘TAG’ button. A box pops up with the page URL and the page title pre-entered, the latter of which you are free to change. Add any notes you’d like to include, type in your tags, and click the ‘do not share’ box if you’d like to keep this bookmark private so only you can see it. Click ‘Save,’ and you’re done.

Posting bookmarks to your website or course management system.

This is a snapshot taken of my Intro to Psych main webpage. My Delicious bookmarks (not the ones designated as private) show up as a ‘link roll,’ the term used for ‘rolling links.’ Although you can only see 2 links here, there are 15 on the actual page. When I add a new bookmark to Delicious, the bookmark pops in at the top of the list and the bottom one rolls off. The descriptions for each bookmark are what I added in the ‘notes’ field when I created the tag; you can edit that whenever you’d like. If you visit the page, clicking on the title will take you to my Delicious bookmarks. Clicking a bookmark will take you to the bookmarked website.

You can also create link rolls based on tags. For instance, I post pages that contain my lecture outlines as well as other content my students might find helpful or interesting. On these pages I’ve added link rolls specifically related to that content. Here’s an example from my neuroscience page where the only links that appear are the ones I have tagged ‘brain.’

To create a link roll, go to ‘Settings.’

Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on ‘Link Rolls.’ On that page, choose your ‘display options,’ such as title and the tags you want (if you choose video and cognition, it will just give you the bookmarks that have both tags). How the link roll will look is displayed on the right. Once it’s configured to your liking, scroll to the top of the page and copy the html code. Go to wherever you edit your webpage, put the cursor where you’d like the link roll to appear, switch to html view, and paste the html code.

Tag Rolls

Instead of posting the link titles, you can just post your tags as a ‘cloud.’ The tags with the most bookmarks are bigger. Visitors can click on a tag to see all of the bookmarks for that particular tag. You can add this to your website in the same way you added link rolls. Visit ‘Settings,’ scroll to the bottom, and click ‘Tag Rolls.’ Select the parameters you’d like, then copy the code. Edit the webpage where you would like to include the tag roll, switch to html view, and paste the code.

Mmmmm…. Delicious!

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Apr 162009

When most people think of blogs, they think of what you’re reading right now: An individual writing about a particular topic.  Blogs, however, have become so much more than that.

For instance, I maintain a semi-private social networking site for my current and interested former students; that’s a blog post unto itself.  I blog there about psychology, and I ask my current students to do the same.  There, blogs are used to create a sense of community and foster intellectual curiosity.

A number of people are moving their websites into blogging software (hosted on the server of a blog service provider or downloaded to their own server, either way).  You can still create pages that hold static content, just like your website already does, but making announcements becomes much easier (see the section on MS Word 2007 below).  You don’t have to be the sole blogger for your blog.  Let’s say that a psychology department decided to create a department website using WordPress.  After creating pages that hold information that don’t change much (e.g., degree and course information, faculty bios), decide who will be able to add blog updates.  I can imagine a number of people who would have blogging privileges: the chair, the advisors to the psych club/Psi Chi/Psi Beta, the department secretary, subject pool coordinator.  Anyone who has something to say to your students can be given the power to post.  It doesn’t have to fall to one person.  Or maybe your department would like to have a research blog where everyone can share what they’re doing — both for the input from colleagues and to show students what research looks like behind the scenes.  Rather than each of you setting up your own blog, all of you could contribute to the same blog.

Blogs come with built-in RSS feeds.   Imagine your students getting word of department news as soon as its posted… (If you’re not familiar with RSS feeds, see my post below titled “Here Comes the News.”)

Ready to start your own blog?

You only need three things.  1.) Something to say.  2.) Somewhere to say it.  3.) Someone to whom to say it.

I’m a relatively new blogger, but I’ve read my share.  Pick a schtick and stick to it.  Once you have built an audience around a theme, shifting too far afield from that theme will cause your audience to vaporize.  For instance, aside from the occasional strategically placed photo, you’ll unlikely hear about my dogs in this blog.  That’s not why you’re here.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t blog about your life.  One of the fun blogs I bring into my Google Reader is written by Lorrene, the 80 year old “grandma blogger” from Yakima, Washington: Pet Peeves and Other Ramblings.  She started her blog as a way to stay in touch with family which is probably a more common use of blogs than you may think.  Gradually she started to pick up other readers — the local newspaper article that made its way into other papers undoubtedly helped expand her readership.  In any case, choose your topic and stay focused.

The somewhere and someone questions are interrelated.  I mentioned above the social networking site I have for my students.  The psychology blog I write there is just for my current and former students, so that site is closed to the general public.  Since this blog you’re reading now has a broader audience, I needed it to be in a more public space.

If you’re going public, opening your blog to the greater world wide web, you have a number of hosting options.  First, do you want it hosted on your institution’s servers?  Some colleges already have blogging software installed.  For instance, WordPress (host of this blog) offers a download to your server or, if you’d rather, WordPress would be happy to host your blog on their own servers (as this blog is).  There are other major blogging services such as Blogger and LiveJournal. These three all offer free service; some offer ‘upgrades’ for a fee that give you things like more space.  Check with your IT people about what’s available on your campus, and then decide.

I confess to not doing a lot of searching around for the best blogging solution.  I had some experience with WordPress, I like the aesthetics of their blogs, and the blog layout is fully customizable — but you have to know some CSS to take advantage of that (on my summer to-do list). Fortunately others have already created some “themes” from which you can choose.  If you do know some CSS, you can alter the appearance of your blog very easily (a $15/year upgrade, not an unreasonable price for that kind of customization).

Getting started with WordPress — nuts and bolts.

Visit WordPress.  Click the big, blue “Sign up now” button.  Follow the on-screen directions, and you’ll have your blog ready to go in a couple minutes.

Here you can see my WordPress ‘dashboard.’  This is the screen that allows me to manage everything related to my blog. (Click on the image to blow it up.)

WordPress Dashboard

WordPress Dashboard

The menu on the top left lets me keep track of things like stats (e.g., number of visitors).  The menu on the bottom left allows me to create and edit posts, view all the images I’ve uploaded, create links that can appear in the right margin (or at least that’s where they appear with this particular layout), add pages (right now I just have an ‘about’ page), look at all of the comments that have been submitted, add a poll to a blog post.

Going further down, I can also change the appearance of my blog.  Since I don’t know CSS (yet), this means selecting from a menu of themes — entire packages of layouts, including fonts, colors, two or three columns.  Then I can add ‘widgets;’ these are extras that appear on the page.  For instance, everything you see in the right margin of my blog page is a widget.  There are many more I can add, e.g. a calendar, Delicious bookmarks (another future blog).

In the “Users” section, you can grant others permission to post to your blog.

The center panel is for editing, and you can see the standard editing toolbar.  For those who are so inclined, you can switch to “HTML” view to enter your own html code.

On the far right is where you can save your writing as a draft and set whether this particular post will be public, password-protected, or private.  Once your post has been finely crafted to your liking, you can either publish it now, or set its publication for a later date.  Finally, you can choose a category (broad) or tags (more specific) for your post.  This makes it easier for your readers to find posts once you have a bunch available.

Once you have your blog design set up as you’d like, you don’t have to come back to write your posts.

Using MS Word 2007 for blogging.

The absolute easiest way to post to a blog is to set yourself up in MS Word 2007.

Open a new Word document, click the Office button in the top left corner, select “Publish,” then “Blog.” Word will then ask you who your blog-provider is and will ask for your username and password.  That’s it.

On the blank slate that appears, type in your title and edit your document as you normally do in Word.  When you’re ready, click “Publish.”  Done. Your post is now available on your blog for all to see.  When you want to write another blog post, click the Office button, then “New,” and select “New blog post.”


Also note that in Word, you can select a category for your post from the list of categories you have already created in WordPress.  Unfortunately, you cannot add tags or add polls.  But once it’s up, you can certainly opt to visit WordPress to tweak it. If you’re not ready to publish it immediately, hit the little down arrow on the publish button, and select “Publish draft.”  For the most everyday of blog posting tasks, MS Word works nicely.

See you in the blogosphere!

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