Dropbox…preventing computers from “eating” students’ homework

Name: Dropbox
Cost: Free, with pay versions for increased storage ($100/year for 1TB)
Type: App (web and mobile device), plus download for computer
Rating: 5/5

 

Dropbox logI’m old enough to remember floppy disks. In fact, I remember storing data on cassette tapes (or, at least attempting to). Oh, the days of limited storage. I had a variety of cases to store my floppy disks, and then not-so-floppy disks, and then CDs…just don’t ask me to find a file quickly. Thumb (flash) drives were a miracle….well, until I bumped one with my knee while it was plugged into my PC and could only access all my graduate school work if I jiggled the thumb drive just right. After that, I had several thumb drives so that I could still transport documents (from school, work, the library, and between my laptop and PC). The trick was remembering that work documents were on the purple drive, while school documents were on the red drive, unless I forgot it at home, and then they were on the blue drive. Enter “the cloud.” With cloud storage, I could save my documents to someone else’s servers and access those servers via internet access. Granted, this was a bit touch and go when internet access wasn’t as widely available as it is today. But since wi-fi is widely available, if a student has a question about feedback I provided on his research paper, I can access my saved version with my mobile device while at Starbucks. Don’t be fooled. I don’t just use Dropbox to work more, but I also store my photos and other documents that I don’t want to lose if my hard-drive crashes.

Goal: Ditch digging in my purse/bookbag for thumb drives.

Dropbox browser version

This view is of the browser version (i.e., log in through internet browser). To the left, you can see the view options. The Sharing folder shows just the folders you are sharing (or have been shared access to) with other users. As you can see, the screen and functions are pretty self-explanatory. It’s a good idea to organize all files into folders for easier access on mobile devices (with small screens).

Benefits:

  • I rarely get error messages with uploading to the cloud. Actually, only once, and that required me to uninstall and reinstall the desktop version. Once in the 5+ years I’ve relied on it daily isn’t bad.
  • Easy to use, especially the desktop version. I just save my files to the folder already linked to my Dropbox account and it is automatically saved to the cloud (and available on my other devices). The desktop version also allows me to drag/drop files into folders.
  • Access through multiple devices (e.g., PC, laptop, mobile device), along with web access on any device (e.g., a library computer). I like this for my photo portfolio, so that I don’t have to store my favorite photos on my phone, but can still show them off (when I have internet access).
  • Versioning is available, so that if you need to return to an older version of a file, you can do so through Dropbox (up to 30 days). I haven’t had to use this feature before, so I can’t comment on how well it works, but it’s nice to know it’s available.
  • Better security than what I had on my thumb drive (or floppy disks).
  • If you’re sharing files, the other person doesn’t need an account. You just give them permission via email link to access the folder. It can get tricky if the person isn’t familiar with Dropbox or similar cloud storage sites (see Drawback below).
  • Gives email alerts when you’re going to max out on available space, so you can either delete files or upgrade.
  • I can upload photos from my iPhone to Dropbox (and even choose which folder they should go in).Dropbox mobile device workspace views

Drawbacks:

  • I don’t think it always plays well with Office 2016. Opening an Office file from a Dropbox folder generally results in the file changing its name to something generic (e.g., W000001.docx) so that I have to do a Save As to get it back to the original file. I keep hoping for a Microsoft update to resolve the problem.
  • This isn’t Dropbox’s fault, but not everyone is familiar with this tool, so file sharing can be confusing to those who haven’t done it before. That said, there is a help center (and community), and it’s a popular enough tool that there are tutorials on YouTube and social media

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Random Tip: Creative Commons

Creative Commons log

Creative Commons (CC) should be in the vernacular of every college student and professional who relies on works created by others, such as music or images, to enhance their own work. In other words, if you need some background music for a video you’re creating, then CC and their licensing system should be familiar to you. Similarly, if you’re creating new content, you’ll want to know how to share and protect your work.

Legal Stuff (lite): Let me back up for a minute. I’ll try to keep this brief since it’s a common lecture I give. Copyright protects artists/creators from having their work distributed without their permission. Now, granting the right to distribute/use might come with a price tag–a creator can say, “Sure, use my photo however you want, but it’ll cost you $5 (one-time fee) to purchase that right.” Even if there isn’t a copyright policy or fee associated with the photo, it is copyrighted to the original creator by law as soon as it is documented/created (electronically or on paper). I’ll save the extensive explanations for a different post, but just know that just because something is accessible through the internet, does not mean the creator has given permission to use and/or distribute the creation.

Why CC? For creators who want to share their work, and want to be clear about what conditions they’re willing to share their work, Creative Commons provides the language and visual representations (i.e., icons) to be posted with the work. Per CC, “Our tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.” If you’ve read copyright law, then you’ll really appreciate CC’s approach to making the law easier to implement. Furthermore, CC’s approach makes it easy for audiences to interpret the creator’s copyright intentions.

CC icons view

This is the “normal” view of icons available through CC. There is also a compact version that just has the abbreviations (e.g., BY) and no icons.

Getting Started: CC makes it easy to get started with figuring out what license you want for your work. For those who really want to understand licenses, I’d start here: Licensing Considerations. It explains the purpose and details about licenses. For those of you (like me) who just want the license, you can get it within two clicks at License Chooser. There are even help buttons to give insights about the legal stuff.

Philosophical Stuff (lite): In a capitalist society, one might question why anyone would share anything willingly for free. Even charging a $1 would turn a bit of a profit for your work. I cannot speak for all artists, obviously, but I do share some of my photos for free (and this blog does not yet have any money generating ads), so I can speak to why I share my work without the expectation of financial compensation. The blog is ad-free at this point because:

  1. I’m lazing and don’t want to figure out what ads would do to my layout and overall appeal of my site.
  2. It was created with the intention to help my colleagues and students.
  3. Creating the posts are a form of stress relief and I fear that money will add stress.

As for my photos that I share on Pixabay, well, that’s all ego…I like seeing people like and download my work. Although users can donate payment through Pixabay, I recognize that users rely on Pixabay because it’s free. Ultimately, I like the idea that someone will use my work as a means to create something even better.

Hannigan Pixabay image screen capture

Here is my ego trip…I can see how many views my photo gets, along with downloads, approvals (thumbs up), saves (star), and comments.

Bonus Content: CC also provides access to content that users have shared (with chosen licenses). Go to Use & Remix to see recent additions to content that is being shared. Each image is marked so you know what you’re clicking into, such as an image, audio file, document, etc.

Screen capture of use and remix page

Here is a view of the Use & Remix section of CC.

Go forth and create! And, respect the copyright.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Random Tip: [Royalty] Free Music from Incompetech

Incompetech logoBackground music can make a video seem more professional, especially if you don’t include voice-over narration or other audio components in the video. While some music can be distracting, choosing the right piece of music can help the audience stay engaged with the text/graphic content in the video.

I’m not a musician, which would be pretty convenient if I could not only play music but also score original pieces to add to my videos. While I own copies of music that would work well for my purposes, I don’t actually own the rights to reproduce that music. Copyright primer…purchasing or downloading a copy of a song does not give the purchaser rights to use that song for commercial purposes. While Fair Use might extend to educators/students at nonprofit institutions, YouTube and other hosting sites do not typically honor Fair Use and will remove videos that violate copyright by using music without clearly indicating copyright permission. Sorry for that legal aside, but I’m from a generation that gloried in the beauty of “file sharing” music only to have it ripped away from everyone and described as theft (with extreme consequences).

Kudos to Kevin MacLeod for coming to my rescue! I don’t have to take music lessons now because he’s willing to share his amazing background music clips on his website: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/music.html. At first I felt a bit guilty for benefiting from his musical talents, but he explains his willingness to share as a means to help out those who don’t have budgets for music.

MacLeod's philosophy graphic

This is an excerpt from Mr. MacLeod’s website (FAQ section). Here he explains why he’s willing to share his work without requiring financial compensation, just attribution.

The website is really easy to use. I know I could get lost for hours just sampling his music, so I just randomly picked some to listen to and made my decision quickly.

Incompetech music preview screen shot

Here is a screen shot of what it looks like when looking and previewing available songs. I love his descriptions of the music…not just the instruments, but the feeling that the music should elicit.

Please respect Mr. MacLeod’s request to give him credit for his work. As someone who shares her work with others for free, I can attest to the faith artists have that their sharing won’t be abused. Giving credit is very simple since the copyright language is provided and can be copied into the credits of the video or other location in the work you’re creating. Should you prefer to not provide attribution, then you can pay for the no-attribution license. If you feel better about using an attributed version by donating to the artist, there’s that option if you have a PayPal account: Donate.

Incompetech copyright and crediting language

This excerpt is also from Mr. MacLeod’s website. Be sure to follow his suggestions for providing attribution.

You can even find him on YouTube, as seen in the clip below.

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Windows Movie Maker…here all along

Name: Windows Movie Maker (2010)
Cost: Free (only for Windows users)
Type: Software
Rating: 2/5

Movie Maker logo

This may be news to some Windows users, but you have access to video editing software already loaded on your computer, as long as you have Windows 10, 8, or 7. Movie Maker is not really well advertised, as compared to iMovie (which is the free software on Macs), but that might be because Movie Maker is not as comprehensive and professional looking as iMovie. Nonetheless, when looking for a video editing tool, why not rely on the one that’s already on your PC? I am always anxious about downloading new software, so it’s great that my operating system actually provides useful software for “free” (if you define “free” as, “rolled into the costs of the operating system”). I had started using Movie Maker over 10 years ago, but then promptly stopped once I got access to Camtasia. Movie Maker is easy to use, which made it a good introduction to the concepts and skills needed to piece together short video clips that have photos, screen captures or other video files, and audio clips. It has the MS Office feel with the menu tabs and options, so it may not feel foreign to users already relying on PowerPoint for visual creations.

Goal: Rely on a free, easy to use video editing tool to create short videos (mostly graphics and text)

Benefits:

  • Drag and drop ability for adding media to the timeline.
  • Very simple looking workspace. Sometimes a long timeline along the bottom of the workspace can be intimidating to new users, so Movie Maker has more of a graphic approach that downplays the look of a timeline.

    Movie Maker workspace

    As you can see, this is a pretty simple workspace, with a drag and drop option to add movie clips, audio, or graphics.

  • There are some tutorials and guides available on the Microsoft site so that you don’t have to rely on YouTube and other non-Microsoft support sites.
  • As mentioned above, it has a similar look and functionality as Word or PowerPoint, so there isn’t much to learn about navigating the software.
  • The transitions options are interesting, especially when adding some overlays (e.g., sparkling lights around the corners). These might work well if you’re creating a photo montage for an anniversary party or wedding reception, where dozens of photos are projected on a screen in video format.
  • There is the ability to type (or paste) in captions. So, if you have a transcript, you can add it to the video. The trick, though, is timing the captions with the audio so the audience is hearing the content when it appears on screen.

    Movie Maker transition options

    This is the menu bar with the most “feature” options for the software. It is a variety of transitions and slide animations you can apply to each graphic or video clip.

Movie Maker timing tools

I spend the most time with these tools when working on editing a video based on PowerPoint slides and audio narration. I have to adjust the timing so the audience has enough time to read the graphic and/or hear the audio narration before transitioning to the next graphic/video clip.

Drawbacks:

  • Syncing up audio and video can be a little tedious, though this is true for most video editors. One change in transitions or video clips and the audio syncing needs to be redone (the extent of the revising depends on how close to the start of the video the change was made). Students who have used the software have reported similar frustrations with adding audio. I try to add audio only after I’m pretty sure the video is what I want it to be.
  • Although this is true for most video editors (except for Camtasia), video clips created with Jing cannot be added/edited to Movie Maker for further editing or combination with other file types. So, if I want to add a screen capture video to my video, then I need to . Microsoft Support provides a list of accepted files, which is extensive, but .swf for a Jing video is not on the list. To get a Jing video in the right file format, I have to use Camtasia to save it as an MP4. Do not despair, though. My favorite screen capture tool create MP4 files: Screencast-O-Matic.

    Movie Maker error message

    This is the error I got when trying to add an MP4 file I downloaded from Pixabay. The “help” links didn’t provide further insights. So, if I want to use these movie clips in future videos, I’ll have to go with different software.

  • The video is saved as .wmv, so the audience needs the Windows or you need to upload it to a site like YouTube. Mac users won’t have access to Windows Media Player, which will play the .wmv file. So, if you just want to email the file or share it (e.g., Google Drive or Dropbox), then Mac users will need to download a comparable media player (e.g., Free WMV Player, which I haven’t tried so use at your own risk).
  • I like to add background video clips from Pixabay, where there might be a train going by or an abstract figure in motion, and then overlay text to emphasize any points made in the audio narration. Unfortunately, every time I tried to add the MP4 file from Pixabay, it came back with an error. When I tried to use the help function, it wasn’t very helpful beyond explaining that the file was not compatible with Movie Maker even though it’s in MP4 format. I’m not sure if this is a user error or software limitation, but since I’ve used the Pixabay files in other video editing tools, I’m guessing it’s a software limitation.

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Wideo….going for a W (in video) [UPDATED]

Name: Wideo [UPDATED: This is the new link]
Cost: Free for 45 second videos [UPDATED: no free version available]
Type: Internet tool
Rating: 4/5

Wideo logoAs mentioned often on this blog, there are many more options than PowerPoint when presenting text and graphics (and audio) in a video format. To be honest, if I am pressed for time, I still go old-school with PowerPoint and Camtasia to create videos based on slides saved as graphics and transitioned together. This is especially useful for longer videos since most other tools require subscriptions for videos over a minute or so. Wideo provides templates so that I don’t have to put thought into the overall design or animation/transitions when creating videos. I am forced to keep my stunning and enthralling messages to 45 seconds (for the free version), which is probably appreciated by my students.

UPDATE: Ugh! Wideo is no longer available free. Which is disappointing, but even more so that the videos I created are now gone unless I pay for the subscription option. So, my review hasn’t changed except that it is no longer is as accessible for those of us who rely on free versions of software. Considering there are other options that are partially free on the internet, I’d suggest playing around with a free option than investing in Wideo unless you have a budget you need to spend. I’ve edited some of the review content to reflect the change.

Wideo pricing options

Since the free version is no longer available, I thought I’d provide the list of prices and features.

Wideo pricing options for education

For those of you who can prove you’re in education (teacher or student), there are cheaper options. Again, I’m not a big enough fan of this tool to even pay the cheaper prices.

Goal: Create videos with some text (not much) and visual interest that look (almost) professionally designed.

Wideo workspace view 1

This is what the workspace looks like when using a template.

Benefits:

  • Blog and newsletter provide tutorials and insights.
  • Templates are provided to get you started. They seem to be within the 45 second (free) time frame.
  • Templates have guides built in (e.g., Insert Image Here)
  • Provides photo editing tools, including special effects, frames, lighting, resizing, touch-ups, stickers, and meme.
  • Guidelines appear when moving textboxes so that you can line things up.
  • Upload your own voice over files or choose from three background music options.

Drawbacks:

  • Limited to 45 second videos, which might actually be a benefit if you’re like me and tend to cram too much information into one presentation.
  • Wideo.co watermark appears throughout video
  • Editing can be a bit tricky. You have to slide the marker on the time line to see all the items in a template slide. So, if five items are animated on the slide, you may only see the first three when editing, but you can reveal the next two by adjusting the timeline.
  • Without watching any tutorial videos, I can’t readily figure out how to animate graphics I add to the video. They appear in place (rather than flying in like the template’s text).
  • Cannot download the completed project in the free version. This means the video is shared on the web (can be reused and seen by the public).
  • Cannot change the color of objects from the icon library (e.g., a light bulb icon only appears in black outline).

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OneNote…the note that rules them all (not really)

Name: OneNote (2016)
Cost: Included with MS Office, free app version available
Type: Software, plus app
Rating: 4/5

OneNote logoI love Evernote. It is simple. Not just easy to use, but it doesn’t distract me with all the possibilities. But, I didn’t think it’d be fair to praise Evernote without also giving OneNote a good look over. They are very similar in features and functionality, but if you’re a Windows/PC/MS Office user, then you may take to OneNote very quickly. I’m a Windows-person (…I can feel whatever “cool” factor I had with some of my readers decline significantly with that admission). But, I really wanted to not like OneNote. I had tried it over five years ago and didn’t really get into it, though, that can also be said for my first experience with Evernote. One of my main issues with OneNote was that I wanted to color coordinate EVERYTHING, and play with all the features. I had nicely organized and colored notebooks, but no notes because I used up my writing time with customization. That’s a “me” issue, not a software issue. So, this time, I did my best to work and not customize.

Inevitably, this will be an Evernote vs. OneNote review. But, I also want to emphasize that since they are similar, it may really come down to personal preferences. You may need to further consider personal preferences if working in a group. Personally, I’d go with Evernote for group work due to its simplicity (lack of distractions).

Goal: See if there is an alternative for Evernote.

Benefits:

  • Auto-correct while typing. I’m the worst speller…just ask my mom who agonized over spelling and vocabulary lists every Thursday night in order to prepare me for Friday’s tests while I was in 2nd through 8th grade. I’m also a bad/lazy typist (e.g., I know that auto-correct with capitalize the first letter after a period, so I don’t take the extra key stroke of hitting Shift).
  • There is a Quick Start Guide, which provides a decent overview if you’re patient enough to go through it. I, on the other hand, am a just jump in and figure it out (i.e., break it) and then go find YouTube videos for answers.
  • It works much like MS Word. I’ve worked with Word for so long that I feel like I have muscle memory for common actions and don’t think about what to do to get the expected result. Although the actions are similar to Evernote, the layout and functionality mimic Word for the most part.
  • App is available for my fruit (i.e., iPhone, iPad) for free.

    App view of a note

    This is a view of the blog post I’m working on in the app version on my iPhone. Yep. It’s small. I’m pretty sure I’d only use this app if I had to do a quick edit or create a new note.

  • You can start audio recordings and embed them into a note. The suggestion is to use it to record a meeting, and then correlate the note with the time in the meeting that’s relevant.
  • Pretty extensive help, though you can also probably find lots of help with a Google search. The Support page is about as helpful as the rest of the support offered by Microsoft…sometimes it’s short and clear, and other times you really have to hunt around for answers. Sometimes, it’s a bug and only a miracle with get it fixed.
  • One of the reasons I wanted to try OneNote is because Evernote limited access for the software version to two devices. Granted, I can still use the web version on multiple devices, but if I have it open on my laptop and PC, then I’ll be logged out of the app version. There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions with how many devices I can have my software account on.
  • It plays well with Outlook. I haven’t tried out this feature, but I like the idea of being able to move between email and OneNote easily.
  • There are group-work features similar to Google docs, where as you type, it is updated in the version anyone synced with your notebook. It’s kind of annoying to see my additions since I’m the only person in my group, but it’d be helpful if I figure out how to clone myself.
    OneNote Workspace

    Here is the view of a note I’m working on (this blog post). You can see the notebook tabs at the top, and the notes off to the right. The green bars with “CH” indicate the text I’ve added, which would be useful if working with a group of people or clones. Unlike Evernote, there isn’t a “tree” navigation field in the desktop version so that I can bounce between notebooks, notes, favorites, etc. [The <..> are mine since I write my posts with HTML tags for posting to my blog. I just don’t want anyone to think that OneNote automatically tags in HTML.]

  • I really like that I can plop a graphic in at any place in my note. Evernote puts it as an attachment at the bottom of the note; this may be due to user error, but then it’s a matter of not being as intuitive as OneNote.
  • You can click anywhere in the note to add start typing in a new text box. In other words, you can have “modules” of text all floating around the page.
  • It saves automatically, which makes me a bit leery since I want the ability to save just after writing the most enlightening paragraph. But, I can sync, which will force a save on to the rest of my devices (thus making me feel like the enlightenment won’t be lost).
  • You can add subnotes to notes. For example, I might have a main note, but then need to collect random/related ideas in a separate note.

Drawbacks:

  • This is a totally personal issue. I’m easily distracted. I will spend an hour color coordinating the tabs and browsing through all the other features.
  • When you start OneNote for the first time, it populates example notebooks/notes with suggested content and tips. I really dislike this. My brain wants everything in the notebooks to be my content and set up for me to create without distraction, but I also don’t want to lose the examples and tips. It makes me a bit crazy to have the “help” mixed in with my stuff.
  • You need a Microsoft account (e.g., Hotmail, Outlook, 365) and access to OneDrive (cloud storage) to get everything to sync. You’ll need to specifically save the notebook you want to see across devices to OneDrive, otherwise, it’s only available on your hard drive. I realize not everyone is on board with Microsoft or PC. If you’re hardcore Google, Apple, or whatever, then even dipping a toe into the Microsoft world by creating an account and storing stuff on OneDrive might be too much to handle.

    OneNote OneDrive workspace

    If you prefer the online version, here’s what it looks like. It’s subject to the quirks of using a browser (i.e., crashing), but works mostly the same as the software version.

  • No “favorites” option. In Evernote, there are a few notes and notebooks that I need all the time; in order to not have to hunt them down, I can mark them as a favorite so they appear at the top of my notebook list view. I can be in a note, click over to a favorite, which may be in a different notebook. This is a big loss for me since it’s part of my workflow (for work).
  • Ctrl+a doesn’t select everything. I know. It’s not a big deal since there are other options, but I’d like to quickly select everything in the note’s textbox so it can be copied or formatted. You need to scroll to the top of the textbox and click on the gray bar for options.
  • You can add “ruled lines” (like loose leaf paper) to a note, but the textbox doesn’t line up with the lines. Unless you just like the nostalgic look of ruled lines, and either want to figure out the spacing so that the lines line up or you’re handwriting with a tablet, then the lines are useless.

    OneNote note with ruled lines

    As you can see, there are ruled lines on this page (which can be added/removed in View). My text doesn’t automatically line up with the lines, so I suspect this is a feature for mobile devices using the handwriting feature.

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Random Tip #14: Awesome Screenshot (add-on/extension)

I have to go on a tangent for a bit before getting to my random tip, but I’ll try to keep the side-leg motion brief. Not everyone is aware of the ability to “add” features to Internet browser’s functionality. Back in the earlier days of Internet browsers (e.g., Netscape, Mosaic, AOL Explorer, etc.), the average user didn’t have have many options for changing or upgrading browser functionality. In other words, the browser worked the same for every user (unless you had programming skills to make modifications that are well beyond my general knowledge).

Along came Firefox, a browser that offered users the ability to “add-on” functionality through third-party developers who create these tools that enhance your browser’s abilities. One of the first add-ons that I added to Firefox was Cool Previews (no longer available), which allowed me to “peek” at a webpage without clicking it open. Yes, Apple didn’t invent the peek option. I’ve had a variety of add-ons since then, and my favorite right now is Evernote Clipper. But, we’re not here to talk about that. One last point I want to mention is that Google Chrome has a many add-ons (a.k.a., extensions), much like Firefox, though not all the Chrome options are free.

Awesome Screenshot LogoWhile I’ve done several reviews of screen-capture software (e.g., Screencast-o-matic, Jing, and Camtasia), there is a browser add-on that was one of my first add-ons and still available: Awesome Screenshot (here is Firefox add-on). What do I like best about this tool? I can take a screen shot of the entire browser page, not just what is viewable (without scrolling down). While Evernote’s Clipper is good for capturing articles I want to read, there are some whole pages I want to save. For example, if I’m shopping for a new Canon lens, and want to keep track of my favorites, I can keep screen shots as I browse different places online. More commonly, I capture my “home” page for my online classroom’s list of announcements so I can make sure I set the course up the same next term since the content doesn’t transfer one term to the next.

Awesome Screenshot doesn’t require a login if you want to just save the graphic to your computer. You can save it online and share if you sign up; you can store up to 30 images for free online. You can also annotate (i.e., draw on the graphic) prior to saving it. Their blog isn’t updated very often, but it’s available for a few more insights.

I suspect there are other (better) options, but this one has worked for me, so I thought I’d share.

Here are some screen shots of the tool:

Awesome screenshot annotation toolbar

There are the annotation options after capturing the screen you want to save. You don’t need to annotated (just click Done to move on to saving it).

Awesome screenshot save screen

Here is the save screen. You’ll need to be logged in to save it to the cloud.

Awesome screenshot sample

Here is the entire screen capture of a webpage, with annotations added.

Random Tip #13: Usability.gov

As has probably become very apparent by reading my blog, I like free options for educators and professionals. While teaching at a for-profit university, I also had to start seeking resources that were not only free, but also didn’t violate copyright restrictions that would otherwise not be an issue for non-profit universities (i.e., fair use for education/learning). I was specifically challenged when designing a technical writing course that didn’t rely on a textbook, so that I had to either write the material, find library sources, or copyright “free” sources on the Internet. I couldn’t even provide students with a URL to a site that did not give us permission to do so.

usabilitygovOne comprehensive and free to use source is usability.gov. As the URL implies, the focus is on usability testing, which is a cornerstone of effective technical communications. Since it is a government website, I don’t have to worry about copyright issues (which is noted in their About page). The site doesn’t just cover usability, but also design, project management, accessibility, and content strategy. It has templates and tutorials. There’s also a blog, but it’s buried under the Get Involved link (…not good design, by the way). It’s worth exploring the site, but here are a few of my favorite pages:

The site was created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, but the content is general enough to apply to almost any field and situation involving design and usability testing. The site is not only for educators looking for “free” content, but I would advocate web designers and other professionals who create content viewed by a large audience review the site for insights. Some of the articles have further links embedded, so you can continue researching topics beyond what is offered at usability.gov; just a caution, though, that not all the external links are active. While the site isn’t as robust as a textbook might be, it’s still good supplemental materials to get a conversation started.

Random Tip #12: TypeItIn

There are times when we have to repeat ourselves. Not because no one is listening, but rather because we’re faced with similar situations that require the same responses. As an educator, this happens often. For example:

  • The “Oxford comma” is required unless you’re a journalist or British; this is the comma that appears before the conjunction (e.g., and) in a list of items. For more information about the Oxford comma, see: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/what-is-the-oxford-comma-and-why-do-people-care-so-much-about-it/
  • Thanks for contacting me! The final project is due May 7, 11:59 p.m. EST. The requirements are noted in the classroom, under the Final Project icon in Unit 9. Please review the requirements, rubric, and sample and then email me if you have any questions about what is required. Late submissions are not accepted.
  • APA citation format requires the title of the periodical to be italicized in the full-citation. The title of the periodical should appear after the title of the article. Also noted after the periodical title is the volume number and the issue number.

I suspect educators and parents can relate to this situation where the exact same text needs to be conveyed multiple times (often, to the same individual). I can envision a Human Resources representative needing to often cite policy in email responses (e.g., “As noted in the Employee Guide, dress code does not permit open-toe shoes, including sandals, flip-flops, peep-toes, or worn out Converse shoes. It was brought to my attention that you have violated dress code, which resulted in this written warning.”) Other professionals in the fields of medicine, law, business, and IT may often need to reproduce the same text in emails/letters, reports, contracts, or websites/software.

If you have situations where you need to repeat yourself in writing (i.e., typing), then I would recommend investing in PasteItIn or TypeItIn. This software is not free, but it’s affordable. Mac has similar software, TextExpander, but I own PCs and didn’t find the PC version very user friendly. If you’re familiar with macros in Word, then it’s the same concept, but works on all forms of text-driven software (e.g., email, PPT, Internet forms, etc.).

typeitinpromoWhat does this software do? It sets on your desktop as a list of labeled buttons that you create. Clicking a button will insert text that you’ve associated with that button. You can change the coloring of the buttons so each will stand out in a glance. You can also create groups of buttons; for example, all of the grammar buttons are listed together, while all the responses to emails are in another group. The grouping prevents the button list from getting too long or confusing. Unlike macros or TextExpander, this software does not rely on “hot keys” (i.e., pressing a combination of keys to get a response, such as Ctrl+A) or a partial word that triggers a response (i.e., typing oxf would insert the Oxford Comma text). I’m not a big fan of either of these methods because I either need to remember the hot key combination or I may accidentally get the Oxford Comma text when I’m typing Oxford University.

TypeItIn sample

Here is what the tool looks like after creating a group and some buttons.

There are drawbacks (with the version I own), but the tool is simple and cheap, so the drawbacks are within reason and may have been addressed with more recent version. You cannot rearrange the buttons once they’re created, though you can copy or move them to different groups. Also, links are not active when inserted into certain situations (e.g., gradebook comments). Another issue with the tool is if you have too many groups, then it gets difficult to scroll down the list of groups in the dropdown box; I have have a scroll wheel on my mouse, which circumvents the difficulty.

I purchased TypeItIn many years ago, and it functions just fine for my needs. Although I like seeing my text typed out character by character, it’s probably a better option to go with PasteItIn (as it takes less time to insert text by pasting the whole text at once).

TinyTake…unless you have a big screen

Name: TinyTake
Cost: Free (pay versions available)
Type: Software download
Rating: 2/5

TinyTake_logo

Although I’m a technical writer, and able to explain steps in a process through text, I value the “let me show you” ability that screen capture software provides, either with still-shots or video capture. This type of software helps the audience compare their actions and outcomes to those described in the tutorial or instructions. I can only imagine how this software would have changed my approach to training when I first started out as a technical writer. Instead of long training sessions, brief videos could capture what the documentation reinforced. For anyone who has sat through a three-hour PowerPoint training class, you’ll understand the value of videos you can watch at your leisure. As for screen shots in documentation created 15 years ago, I used the Prt Scr keyboard button of Windows, and then edited it in Paint. Actually, TinyTake is not too far off from the options in Paint, though it includes the screen capture feature that Paint does not. If TinyTake was the only screen capture software I was given when abandoned on a desert island, I would probably last about a week before pitching my laptop into the ocean. It isn’t bad software, but it’s just not very dynamic. That said it would work well for anyone who likes to use a simplified version of Paint (if you can get more simple than Paint).

I would like to thank one of my technical writing students (Britt Wells) for bringing this tool to my attention!

TinyTake workspace

This is the whole tool. You can select an image capture, video capture, upload documents to share, or access your YouTube account to share videos you’ve uploaded.

Goal: create video or static photo of my computer screen through screen capture software

Benefits:

  • There is a blog associated with the tool, but at the time I wrote this post, there were only seven articles and none were dated, so they could be a few years old. (I’m becoming such a blog-snob, as I want companies to continually update their blogs with fresh ideas and insights.)
  • There are undo and redo buttons. As someone who is prone to playing around with software until it breaks, I like the option to go back to a pre-broken state.
  • There is an effect to “pixelate,” which threw me off at first because I’m always trying to make graphics clearer rather than more obscure. But, then it dawned on me that sometimes you need to obscure personal information and the like.
  • You can add arrows to point out areas in the graphic. There are options to change the color of the arrow, though that’s about it. It’s also easy to add an arrow and textbox.
  • There are a few different options to save/share: save to computer or to TinyTake cloud; copy to clipboard; email; or print.
  • When uploading videos to YouTube, you can preset all the videos to use the same privacy setting (e.g., Unlisted).
  • MangoApps, the company that created TinyTake, claims their cloud storage is very secure. This is helpful when storing screen shots of proprietary software or personal information.
  • If you like the ability to add text, arrows, and other simple graphics (e.g., circle, square, etc.) to your own photos, you can open graphic files with TinyTake. I’d probably stick with one of the more “fun” photo/graphic editing options, such as PicMonkey, BeFunky, or Canva. You can also import a video you’ve recorded with other software.
  • You can record the audio from your speakers, which is convenient if you’re recording a Google Hangout session. But, you only have five minutes of recording time on the free version, so it needs to be a very short meeting.
  • You can share more than the TinyTake screens/videos on their cloud; in other words, you can share documents and your other YouTube videos you’ve created and want to show others in your group/class.

    TinyTake workspace 2

    After capturing an image, this is what you’ll see as far as the workspace. The “annotating” tools are at the top of the screen.

Drawbacks:

  • Requires software download. This isn’t a big deal, but some people can’t make changes to the PC/laptop they’re using (e.g., school lab, work laptop).
  • Required login to use the software. It’s best to set up the account prior to download because you have to receive and respond to the confirmation email.
  • No click and drag resizing before opening the editing window. Jing, for example, selects the area and allows me to drag the borders to capture more/less in situations where I missed the mark I was aiming for.
  • There’s a “drag me” indicator at the bottom of the screen that makes it seem like more features are available, yet it actually implies you can click and drag your graphic right into another application (e.g., email). I was hoping for something more fun (like Alice in Wonderland‘s “drink me” bottle to change sizes).
  • The pixalation squares for the pixelate effect are really big, so they seem more decorative and the audience may not realize that you intentionally obscured information. I think I would prefer a blurring effect that can be gained in a photo editing tool.
  • There are few formatting options for the textbox text. The border color is the same as the text color; so, you can’t have a green border and black text, for example.
  • The free-draw option (as compared to drawing a box, circle, or line) is pretty basic. I tried to draw a star and I think that I was able to draw better looking stars when I was in kindergarten.
  • The free version does not allow for annotating the video.
  • If you click the main Save and Share button, it goes right to the TinyTake cloud; you have to click the little arrow on the right side of the button to open the other save options.

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