Quick Tip: The Scanner in Your Pocket

Have you ever needed to quickly scan a document to either save it or send it to someone else? One way to scan a document is to use a multi-function printer to scan the document to a pdf and either save it to your computer or email it to a recipient.  Alternatively, you can get a scanning app for your phone which allows the phone’s camera to do the scanning. Many apps are available that can turn your phone (or tablet) into a portable scanner. Some are free, some are not, and the apps vary in quality.  Did you know that you already have an app that can do this if you have an iPhone, and it comes with your phone? The app is called Notes.

Many people use Notes to scan documents by opening the app, telling it to create a new note and then from the menu choosing “Scan Document” from the list of options.  This process works well.  However, you do not need to do all those steps to do capture a scan.  Instead of tapping the Notes icon, long press it. From the menu that appears choose “Scan Document”.  The scan saves automatically as a new note.  You can export the scan to use it in a variety of ways via the share sheet.

The Magnifying Glass You Have With You

When you are out and about, have you ever wished you had a magnifying glass available to read small print, remove a splinter, etc? One of my hobbies is genealogical research which often requires reading documents written with poor handwriting or the unfamiliar penmanship styles of previous time periods.These documents are more easily decipherable if you can magnify them. Good news! If you have an i-Phone, you have a potential magnifier in your pocket!  You do not need an app to use your phone as a magnifier since this is already available in iOS as an accessibility feature.  All you need to do is activate it in settings, and the iPhone will use the camera to make it work as a magnifying glass. Unfortunately, I do not know if a similar feature is available on Android devices.

To activate the magnifier, open SETTINGS, choose the GENERAL option.and then open ACCESSIBILITY.  Click on MAGNIIFIER and turn on this feature.  When you want to activate the magnifier on a pre-iPhone X model, click the HOME button three times.  On the iPhone X, activation occurs on three clicks of the SIDE button.

Have you found other generally useful features in the accessibility menu?  If so, I would love to learn about them.

A Non-Linear Creative Thinking Tool for Project Development

Most students when working on a research paper, seminar style presentation or other major project begin by writing an outline.  The problem with using outlining during the initial planning stages is that it locks you into a linear flow pattern which can be like putting on blinders.  A lesser number of students may use a mind mapping strategy which is more freeform although it does encourage starting from a central point.  Enter Scapple, a software application that provides a totally freeform way to get ideas flowing.  The Scapple canvas acts like a piece of paper on which you can write random ideas anywhere you wish without the necessity of making any connections during the creative thinking process.  As development proceeds, lines can be added to connect ideas as shown in the image below from the Scapple website. The application allows the student to easily experiment with different idea connection patterns.  Once a desired flow is obtained, the student can convert it to an outline if he/she wishes.  For the last few years, my chemistry students have successfully used Scapple in the development of their senior seminars.

Scapple is an inexpensive application available for both macOS and Windows from Literature and Latte.  A regular license for either platform is $14.99 while an educational license is $12.  Literature and Latte has a very lenient policy allowing a single license to be used on multiple computers as long as they are owned by the licensee.

If you think you have a use for such a tool,  you should download it an try it out.  Literature and Latte allows you to download a fully functional version of the application and use it for 30 days of actual use (not just a period of calendar days) which is more than enough time for you and/or your students to use it for organizing a project.



Introducing Students (or Anyone Else) to Power Searching With Google

Remember the days when you spent hours in the library looking through dusty books taking notes on 3 x 5 cards? If you were a chemistry student, you used the dreaded volumes of Chemical Abstracts which required knowledge of how to use a series of different paper indexes and whose tomes took up entire sections of floors of libraries. Although today’s students are used to “googling” everything, most just type sentences or a few keywords into the search box to find information. Google has many search tools that allow the researcher to conduct efficient searches that can target results from reputable and scholarly sources.

I have put together a web resource for use by my upper division students (although it could be used by students at any level as well as non students) that introduces them to a variety of tools allowing them to target specific types of information. The site is freely available for anyone to use for themselves or their students.  You might even find some tools with which you were unfamiliar!

My iPad Love Affair

When Steve Jobs took the stage on January 27, 2010 announcing the “revolutionary” iPad, I thought why in the world would I need a supersized iPod Touch?  Of course, I Vector-iPad_thumbdidn’t… but, got mine the very first day.  It was indeed a magical device which quickly made me wonder how I had lived my life without one.  I have upgraded several times since that day.  I carry a retina mini with me everywhere and have an iPad Air 2.  I use them primarily as information consumption devices for reading, web surfing and video, but do use them for some productivity activities such as note taking, spreadsheet calculations, managing class Moodle sites, editing pdfs and minor writing when on the go.  I must say I do love my iPads!

For a long time, there were rumors that Apple was going to produce a large screen iPad.  I wondered why would I want a steroidal iPad to tote around?  I have a mini because I don’t want to pack around the standard size iPad.  This was one Apple i-device that I did not even consider pre-ordering before it launched.

I teach several courses that are either predominantly or completely online offerings; all have significant writing components, and the students in these classes turn in their work as pdf documents.  During the grading process, I want to be able to scribble comments, corrections, make little drawings, etc on the documents for returning to the students. This is especially important because the students in an online class are often unable to come to my office to discuss their work with me.  I can edit pdf documents on a computer by inserting comment boxes and highlighting the writing, but it never is as clear and efficient as being able to mark up the work with a pen.  My workflow in the past has been to print each pdf, mark it up, scan it and return it to the student by email or some other method.  This has killed many a tree and resulted in carting around a messenger bag crammed full of paper.  So the problem to be solved is how to effectively give feedback to students while saving trees (important to someone like me who teaches environmental courses.)

The solution?  An iPad Pro coupled with the Apple pencil!  The pencil is the game changer here, but, unfortunately, it only works with the Pro and not other iPads. With ipadpro_pencil-hand-printthe pencil, I can write on the screen just like writing on paper (truly you can!)  It is legible, at least as legible as my handwriting is.  I can change up colors of “ink” which when combined with highlighting and striking out words does exactly what I would do with paper documents.  When I am done, I can upload the corrected documents to the students via my Moodle shell.  No trees have been killed, only some electrons rearranged!

Here is my workflow:  I download the student pdf documents into a Dropbox folder and open them in PDFpen for IOS from Smile Software.  I append a pdf of the scoring rubric to the end of each document (sometimes I already have done this using PDFpen Pro on my Mac) and then proceed to annotate them with the pencil.  After syncing with Dropbox, I upload the graded documents into the Moodle shell for students to pick up.  Can I say this is magical?

The iPad Pro is a monster.  It is big.  It is heavy, and it is certainly expensive.  You are not going to put this thing in your pocket, and you get tired when trying to hold it up in portrait mode.   Actually, it probably isn’t much different in weight than an original iPad, but it is much more unwieldy.  It is fine to use on a desk or table, and the screen real estate does have its advantages.  With the ability to split the screen between two apps in IOS 9, you can work with two documents side by side which can be very useful.  You can see an entire written page very nicely in portrait mode.  I hope Apple will make pencil use available on the next iteration of the iPad Air as that would be a great form-function pair.

I can foresee some additional productivity use cases for the iPad Pro.  Although I have never envisioned using an iPad as a computer replacement because I need to work with software that is not available on a tablet, I do foresee being able to leave my 15″ Macbook Pro home while traveling when I don’t need access to such applications.  The screen size is great for word processing, and Microsoft has done a nice job with the Office apps for the iPad (assuming you have an Office 365 subscription). I am sure I will find other uses that take advantage of the pencil and sweet screen.

If you think you might have a use for this device, go to an Apple Store and play with one using the pencil before you buy it.  This is not going to be something everyone, or even many people, are going to need.  I didn’t want one, but it solves a big deal problem in my life so I have to say I have rekindled my love affair with the iPad!


Surfacing from Mounds of Documents: Reading with Your Ears!

Journal articles, pdfs, webpages, etc….so much to read…..so little time!

If you are like me, you have mounds of documents to read.  Many years ago, I was an early adopter of an Audible subscription.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Audible, now a subsidiary of Amazon, sells audiobooks.  I have little time to read fun stuff so I listen to the best new books, classics and anything in between while driving, flying, going to the VoiceDreamReadergym, doing house chores, etc.  It is a great service, but it does not help me get through all the professional stuff I need to read.  So, the problem to be solved is how to use some of this time to get some professional reading done.  The solution is an app for mobile devices called Voice Dream Reader.

Voice Dream Reader will read almost anything text to you excluding DRM-protected documents.  The app was designed to make text accessible to the visually impaired as well as those with dyslexia and other learning styles.  If you have a tablet such as an iPad, you can turn on the screen reading accessibility option to have what is on the screen read to you.  I have tried this and found it to be cumbersome although you can use it with texts such as Kindle books which do not work in Voice Dream.

The app is incredibly easy to use.  You open the document you wish to have read to you and press the play button.  As the text is being made audible, the line being read is highlighted on the screen with the current word appearing in a box.  Although I don’t really have a use for that, I think it is a great feature for aiding those who are learning to read or have difficulty reading.  The program is auto-scrolling so you do not have to change the pages of the document manually, and you can adjust the speed of the reading from very slow to speed reading.  There are multiple voices available so you should be able to find one you like, and the program can read to you in 30 languages.  To start being productive, all you have to do is open your document, don your headphones, press play and do your chores or work out.

I find this to be a great way to digest documents I have saved as pdf files.  My work flow for this is to save the text as a pdf, print to pdf or scan the document.  If I scan the document using my Fujitsu Scan Snap, it automatically asks me if I would like to OCR the document which I do.  If I have scanned document some other way, I open it in PDFpen Pro (an awesome OS X program for working with pdfs), and OCR it.  Doing the OCR not only allows me to use the pdf with Voice Dream but also makes the text searchable which has lots of other uses.  Voice Dream Reader handles a large number of file formats other than pdf as well.VoiceReaderContent

Voice Dream Reader is not Audible!  There is no human reading you the document.  It is definitely a computerized voice that does not always get the pronunciation right and does not recognize that a hyphen at the end of a line of type splits a word into pieces that should be combined for reading.  While this can sometimes be a bit annoying, voice technology has come a long way in sounding more natural, and I find these annoyances a small price to pay for how it helps me get stuff done.

Voice Dream Reader is available for both IOS and Android devices for $9.99 and comes with one voice, Heather.  Additional voices can be obtained as in-app purchases.


A Simple App for Saving Anything You Want To Access Later

Captio is a no frills IOS app that lets you type or paste information onto the screen of your mobile device, hit the send button and have the information appear in your email inbox. Captio logo   All you need to do is enter your email address once into the app during setup, and you are set to go.  Although the app was originally designed for the user to send him/herself quick reminders, I find it to be a great application for sending web links from my iPad to either my Mac or PC computer for later use.  While I can do the same thing by writing myself an email, Captio really does this very efficiently as all I have to do is copy, paste onto the Captio screen and hit send.  I do not need to type an email address and delivery is extremely fast via Google’s mail servers.  Sometimes taking a photo of something is more efficient than typing a note, and you can add both photos and screenshots to Captio for delivery easily.

To make a screenshot on an IOS device, you press the Sleep button (located at the top or side depending on the device) immediately followed by pressing the Home button which stores the screenshot in the Photos app. captio_screenshot To transfer the screenshot, you press the “+” button in the lower right hand corner, click the picture icon, choose the screenshot photo, and hit send.  All of this takes about a total of 30 seconds.  While you can share photos via email, since Captio is set up to send directly to your inbox, the entire process is quicker than using your email app.  If you want to take a picture of something to send,  you hit the “+” button in the lower right hand corner of the Captio screen, click the camera icon, snap your photo and send.

If you are off-line and want to send yourself a reminder, Captio will store the email.  When your device is online again, it will automatically send the note to your inbox.

This is a great little app that does one thing (email pieces of information) and does it well.  Captio costs $1.99 in the Apple App Store and works on both the iPhone and iPad.

A Nifty Way for Mac Users to Summarize Articles

I’ve been doing a lot of literature review for a new research project. One problem you run into when you come up with a large number of lengthy articles is time to read them. If you are a Mac user, there is a nifty tool available to help with this problem. This tool called “Summarize” allows you to condense an article to get the gist of it so you can decide if it is valuable for digesting in more detail later. These summaries also can be used the way we used 3 x 5 cards in the good ol’ days to catalog information when writing research papers. If you aren’t doing research, Summarize can be used just to abridge the daily news, etc. It is one of those interesting little tidbits in OS X that most Mac users have no idea even exists!

You have to activate this feature of OS X to be able to use it. To do this, go to the System Preferences menu (click on the little Apple at the top left of your screen to get there) and choose Keyboard. In the box of Keyboard preferences, choose the Shortcuts Option. system_preferences_summarize1Choose Services in the lefthand pane. In the righthand pane, scroll down almost to the bottom and check the Summarize box. Clicking on “add shortcut” allows you to choose a keyboard shortcut for calling up the Summarize feature on the fly (my shortcut is option+command+s). You can now use this feature with anything you wish to condense such as a word processor document, website article, etc.

When reading a document, select the portion of the document you would like to condense (command+A will select the entire document), and open the Summarize function. If you did not make your own keyboard shortcut, you will have to access Summarize by right-clicking the selected text and choosing the Services option from the menu. When the Summarize window opens, you will see a plain text document. At the bottom of the window, you can alter how condensed the summary is by adjusting the summary length with a slider. In paragraph mode, Summarize chooses what it deems to be the most “important” words and shows you the paragraphs that use them the most. In sentence mode, Summarize chooses individual sentences containing the “important” words.system_preferences_summarize2

You can copy and paste the summary into another document or save the summary as a file (command+shift+S). The file is a text file that can be used in a word processor document or anything else that can use text files. When you name your file, if you manually add the RTF (rich text) extension, the Finder will be able to generate a preview of the document.

If you haven’t played with Summarize, give it a try to see if you have a use for it.  I don’t know of a similar function in Windows.  If someone knows of one, I would love to try it out.

Do You Ever Wish You Didn’t Need to Type the Same Thing Over and Over Again? Here’s Your Ticket!

Do you ever repeatedly type your name, certain phrases or terminologies, or write a lot of similar email responses?  If you do, tame those beasts with a text expansion application. Text expansion applications allow you to create snippets of text that you can use over and over again.   A snippet can be anything from a word or a single line signature to paragraphs of boilerplate verbiage. You assign a unique trigger abbreviation to each of your snippets.The expansion application runs in the background on your computer so that when you type the trigger abbreviation, your snippet of text is pasted into the document.

There are a number of text expansion applications out there, but the one I use on the Mac is TextExpander 4 ($34.95) from Smile Software.  One of the advantages oficon_home_textexpander TextExpander is that Smile also makes an iOS application, TextExpander touch ($4.99), which can sync with your TextExpander library via Dropbox allowing you to access your snippets both at your desk or on the go with an iPhone or iPad.

So what sorts of things can you do with TextExpander? You can use it to insert signatures that may contain either formatted text and/or graphic.  You can add headings and salutations used in letters or emails.  You can insert the current date and time in any format that you want to use and even do date/time math.  One nice application is the automatic correction of typos.  If you are like me, and there are some words that you commonly type incorrectly, you can use the commonly misspelled word as the trigger and have TE automatically correct the misspelling.  This is very different from that lovely autocorrect function that we find on smart phones and other mobile devices because you make your own library of correction words or phrases, and the computer does not “help” you out by guessing what you are trying to type!   With TE the word replacement is only triggered when you actually type in the misspelled word.

Perhaps the thing I like best is the ability to create boilerplate snippets containing form fields that allow a snippet to be “personalized”.  One of the tasks I do quite often is write recommendation letters for students applying to professional or graduate schools.  In these letters, I have several topics for which I always provide evaluation so I have generated boilerplate introductions for each of these topics that can be quickly “personalized” for each student.  This allows me to concentrate my time on the more important individual comments that I want to make about each student.

Here is the TE snippet I use at the beginning of my letter for my introductory comments about each student.  The %filltext part of the snippet generates a form fill-in into which I type the “personalizing” information.


Here is the fill-in snippet that pops up on my screen when I type the trigger abbreviation. Notice that my trigger abbreviation is not something that I would accidentally type into a document!


All that I have to do is type the information into the field boxes


and voilà, this paragraph magically appears in my document!  I can then modify or add other information that specifically pertains to that student.


I use TE snippets for emails that require only small changes from a stock response, have created items such as expense reports that are quickly filled in and have generated snippets for graphic items that I frequently use in my class materials.

Since TextExpander is a Mac only application, what to do if you don’t have a Mac?    I personally have both a PC and a Mac running simultaneously on my desk at work that I bounce between so I wanted to have my snippets available on both machines.  PhraseExpress, which is billed as Text Expander for Windows, was my answer.  It can be used as a Windows only application or can sync pex9_main_program_window_500pxvia Dropbox with your TE library.  I have found the cross-platform interaction to be quite good.  Snippets created in TE work seamlessly for the most part on the PC, and snippets created on the PC get added to your TE library.  I haven’t done a lot with creating snippets on the PC so I can’t say whether or not the return journey to the Mac is always successful.  Although you can have image snippets in PhraseExpress, this is the one area where I have encountered incompatibility with my TextExpander library.  Typing the trigger abbreviation for a graphic has resulted in the graphic not being inserted by PhraseExpress.  For graphics used regularly, I solved this issue by creating graphic snippets in PhraseExpress that are triggered by the same keystrokes I use in TE.  This strategy seems to work well.  The standard version of PhraseExpress is free for personal use, and there is also an Android app. I don’t have any experience with the Android app so I don’t know how well it integrates.  Maybe someone out there with experience using both PhraseExpress and the Android app, can give a comment review.

No matter what your platform of choice is, go out, get a text expansion application and up your productivity!

iThoughts …Get It While It’s Hot!

I have been playing around with mind mapping tools lately and found out that an app I really like has been updated and is on sale. iThoughts-iPad iThoughts HD, a great iPad mind mapping tool, has been totally rewritten from the ground up and was released May 13 with a new name, iThoughts for iOS 7 which is universal for both the iPhone and iPad.  Since this release is essentially a new app, if you already own iThoughts HD, you will need to purchase it again.  However, for a limited time it is available for $1.99 in the iOS App Store which is 80% off the regular price.

In addition to the mobile app, there is a companion application for the Mac called iThoughtsX.  iThoughtsXYou can move your maps easily between your i-devices and Mac via iCloud, Dropbox, etc. allowing you to brainstorm anywhere.  When your mind map is complete, you can export it in a variety of ways including OPML, PDF and HTML for sharing or for use with other applications.  To celebrate the launching of iThoughts for iOS 7, the Mac version is also on sale for $48 which is 20% off the normal price.  Although this might seem to be a bit expensive, computer mind mapping tools often range in price from $100-$300.

You can purchase iThoughtsX either from the developer’s (Toketaware) website or from the Mac App Store.  Want to try before you buy?  You can download a free 14 day trial for iThoughtsX from Toketaware.  iThoughtsX licensing allows the software to be installed on multiple computers as long as only one person is using it at any one time.  The developer’s website indicates that educational discounts are available upon request.   Both the mobile and Mac versions are great pieces of software although I really like the convenience of the iPad version for use anywhere an idea strikes me.