Category Archives: Digital Living

Sharon Guan

Learning by Messaging: Social media apps and the classroom

On the first day of class, I asked my students, “How many of you have a smart phone?”

Everyone raised their hands.

“Great!” I said. “Take them out—if they aren’t already—because you will do a lot of messaging in this class. Go to and download the app to your phone.”

After the students created their accounts, I gave them my phone to scan the bar code for the class group I created within the app.

Within 15 minutes, all fifteen of them were in the Chinese 104-101 WeChat group. After the setup, I began explaining what WeChat is, and how I’ve used it in previous classes.

WeChat is a mobile messaging app developed by a Chinese company called Tencent Inc. According to DMR, as of Aug 22, 2015, there are 800 million active users. It’s user-ship has surpassed Twitter and continues to grow rapidly and globally. It is threatening the global social media market and has been referred to as the potential “Facebook killer”.

In my Chinese language class, I use WeChat to serve the following purposes: Continue reading

Sarah Brown

For the Curious Consumer: Can I use “learning an educational technology” as an excuse to buy Apple Watch?

apple watch

Sort of? I can’t claim that the information I’ll share will help you make a case for your department chair or dean to pony up money for this (or to allow you to use any educational funds already allotted to you for this purpose). But, when I’m making a decision to divert the Game of Thrones action figure portion of my paycheck to an expensive tech gadget, coming up with a professional reason to buy a toy always helps ease the stress of the decision.

Disclaimer: So, yes, I woke up at 2:00 am April 10 to put in an order for the Apple Watch. I didn’t make an appointment to see the watch in person – I knew I wanted the Apple Watch Sport, since my primary reason for purchasing it is to replace my FitBit, and I also knew I wanted the smaller watch face size, since I have chicken-leg-sized wrists. A colleague of mine made an appointment with her husband and said it was well worth it, since they both ended up choosing different watch options from what they had anticipated purchasing.

There are many, many reviews out there (some of which will be linked below, and Mashable’s is my favorite) from folks who have actually had this thing on their wrists for a week or so. My focus here is on helping you – and me – justify the purchase as “for my job as a teacher”: Continue reading

Daniel Stanford

My Oversharing Adventure: Travel Notes from the Land of Millennials

I give you my word that by the end of this article, you won’t feel bad about yourself. You won’t feel behind the times because you refuse to tweet course announcements, or follow your students on Instagram, or friend them on some new app that tells you what they had for breakfast.

I care about your feelings because I understand your pain. I was born in one of those years that generation X and millennials have agreed to treat as a demilitarized buffer zone. Part of me feels a kinship with those who came before me. I share their concerns about online privacy. I’m a little worried about those NSA data bunkers and the fact that kids today don’t return phone calls. I even hesitated to list the year of my birth in this very public blog post, which is probably a sign I’m not a true millennial.

On the other hand, part of me longs to burn my gen-X passport and defect to the reckless frontier that is the Republic of gen-Y. To learn what I’ve been missing, I recently embraced my dual citizenship and spent a few weeks living as a native among the millennials. Within days, I went from shaking my fist at Miley Cyrus, with her twitpics and her twerking, to sharing artsy photos of melted ice cream and Vine videos like a true gen-Y artiste. I also created a profile on Vizify, which took my yawn-inducing data from LinkedIn and transformed it into a slick collage of photos and infographics. (For more on that, view the video below.)

I like that my Vizify profile peels back the professorly veil just a bit without leaving me overexposed. Continue reading

Kate Daniels

In the Cloud(s)

I still shudder when I think of standing with my father curbside watching his laptop being carried away in the trunk of an anonymous city cab. We couldn’t chase the cab, we had no recollection of which cab company it was, and my dad had paid the driver in cash. Everything on his computer was instantly, mercilessly gone. All we could do was stand there and watch, slack-jawed.

That was a decade ago.

Just last week, I had a harrowing experience of my own: I spilled water on my laptop, completely destroying it. The Macbook Pro was pronounced dead on arrival at the Genius Bar.

I felt horrible and lamented my carelessness to my partner. He just shrugged and said, “thin client; no biggie.” Continue reading

Sarah Brown

Gamifying My Two Favorite Things: Running and Eating (and then Teaching!)

As a dutiful instructional designer, I’ve been paying attention to the concept of gamification. I’ve read some James Paul Gee, I’ve reflected on the time spent in my formative years (or *cough* last weekend) playing Zelda, and I’ve listened to our resident guru on the subject, Daniel Stanford, talk about how we could make the concept work within our courses and within D2L. But gamification remained only an interesting side topic that I sometimes devoted brainspace to until a couple of weeks ago, when I purchased the Fitbit Flex.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not trying to do any awkward product placement in our blog. There are several activity trackers out there, and I just happened to buy the newly-released Flex. Continue reading

Ian Hall

On Observation

I am working on my masters in Human-Computer Interaction in CDM at DePaul University.

At the moment I’m taking HCI 445: Inquiry Methods and Use Analysis, with Dr. Cynthia Putnam. The class focuses on observing user experience, and though it’s just getting started, so far it has taught me quite a bit about observing how people go about their daily work. One of the really informative exercises we did in class recently involved a visit to the reference desk at a bookstore chain located downtown.

Continue reading

Alex Joppie

“Not Supported”

A few days ago, I took a stroll between the DePaul Library and the Student Center, and this is what I saw in students’ hands in a single walk through campus:

  • Lots of Android phones
  • Lots of iPhones
  • Several Macbooks
  • A number of Windows laptops
  • A couple iPads
  • A Chromebook
  • An Android tablet (something in the Asus Transformer family)
  • A Microsoft Surface tablet (I couldn’t tell if it was the Pro version or not)
  • A Kindle Fire

If there were any Linux devices, I must have missed them.

I like seeing the diversity of connected devices we’re using today. The competition among tech companies is good for the pace of innovation, and I like innovation. But it presents a challenge to institutions who allow students to bring their own devices and the students who expect their chosen device to do everything for them. Continue reading

Sharon Guan

Rules on the Tools: Technology Alternatives for Internet Users in China

I visited China this summer and found that many of the Internet tools that I use every day here in the United States cannot be accessed in Beijing: Google, my browser homepage, shows up blank; YouTube appears as an empty page, as do Facebook and Twitter. I felt like I was put into the experiment group of the wave-making research conducted by Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in 2010, where students were cut off from their connection with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL for a week. But that was just a week. How did the people of the most populated country in the world survive without these digital connections all the time?

After asking the locals, my puzzle was soon resolved and by attending the conference of Educational Innovation through Technology at Tsinghua University. The answer became clear: social media in China is as ubiquitous and impactful as it is in the rest of the world; however, because most of the popular tools are banned by the government, these social-networking functions are carried out through alternative technologies. While sitting in the sessions about social-media tools and their use for education, I tried to build a connection between the tools that I heard about and the tools that I used in the States. In the end, I came up with the following grid that summarizes the pairing of our social-media tools and their Chinese equivalents:


Their Alternatives in China

Google Search Engine









Tudou, Youku

Google vs. Baidu

Baidu is called the Chinese Google, but CNN Money said this might be an insult to Baidu. Comparing to Google’s 50% market share in the United States, Baidu dominated with 78 percent of the Chinese internet market in the fourth quarter of 2011. Before I learned from friends that I could access Google from its HongKong site, Baidu seems to be the best choice for me for conducting online search in China. Although I didn’t find an English interface for Baidu, its striking similarity to Google makes it possible for non-Chinese users to launch a search.

Although the interface of Baidu doesn’t present a problem to English speakers, the result might cause some confusion. For example, if you put in an English word in the text box, what you get as the result may be Chinese sites or Chinese translations related to the words. The engine also reserves the top finding for its own encyclopedia. A search for DePaul University, for example, will yield a top result of a Chinese version of a DePaul overview from Baidu encyclopedia instead of This says clearly that Baidu is meant for Chinese users.

Facebook vs. Renren

Renren, a leading social network in China, looks, feels, and works like a clone of Facebook. Beside its Fackbook-like interface and functionalities, Renren, which means “everyone” in Chinese, shares the same origin as Facebook: it started as a campus networking system in 2005 and stayed that way for four years. In August 2009, it dropped its original name of Xiaonei, which means “on campus,” and began to aim at a boarder market of “everyone.” According to Financial Times (September 25, 2012), Renren claims that it has 157 million active users, which is 15 percent of the 995 million users claimed by Facebook.

Tempted to find the difference between Renren and Facebook, I created an account at After filling in (and being strongly encouraged to fill in) my real name and personal information such as name, birthdate, profession, schools attended, and interests, I was granted an account. The look of my Renren site reminded me a lot of my old Facebook page before it got messed up by the “timeline” scheme.

One thing that I wasn’t asked to enter was my religion and political view and there was no status report on my “relationship” either. In addition to all of the Facebook-ish clickables, Renren has an icon on its upper right corner that says “write journal” (see images below). Like embedding a blog into a Facebook site, this function enables people to go beyond a quick note. Users can express themselves in-depth and with length in a blogging manner. One other thing that tells the difference between the east and the west in terms of data sensitivity is Renren’s exposure of visitors. When I logged into my Renren page the day after the account was created, it displayed a guy who had visited my page. Oh my god, do I want to know who visited me? Or do I want anyone to know that I visited him or her? No wonder there has been no English interface for Renren—no American would like that kind of exposure!

Twitter vs. Weibo

It will be an understatement to Weibo to call it the Chinese version of Twitter. As a system pushed out by China’s Internet giant Tencent after Twitter was blocked by Chinese authorities in 2009, Weibo delivered a broad array of social-network functions available in both Twitter and Facebook. Like Twitter, it creates a virtual land of fan clubs for celebrities by allowing the users to be fans or followers (see image below).

Weibo, which claimed more than 233 million registered users, launched its English Interface in Nov 2011.

IM+Skype+WebConf vs. Weixin

I was shocked by how quickly email is becoming obsolete in China. Although most of my friends still have email accounts and still check them once in a while, they almost all opted for this new app called “Weixin,” which means “micro-message” in Chinese and is called “WeChat” in English. WenXin or WeChat can be downloaded to various mobile devices or a computer. It allows users to send voice, video, photo, and text messages. By indicating your location, it can also help users find friends nearby. The group chat feature allows a web-conferencing kind of environment where a number of users can communicate at the same time.

YouTube vs. Tudou and Youku

It feels depressing and disabling not being able to access YouTube, and there isn’t one system in China that can resemble all the fame and content YouTube possesses. The role of video content sharing is shared among a number of tools, of which “Tudou” and “Youku” are the two dominant ones. Both sites are targeted specifically at Chinese viewers without any interface options for English or any other languages.

As you can see, it was quite a learning experience for me to find and experience all of those alternative technology solutions due to China’s rules on the tools. All of those wouldn’t have been necessary—at least for myself—had I known that there were tools designed to deal with the rules.

The technique of “fan qiang” which means “bypassing the firewall” is no stranger to most of the local users in Beijing, even though it was deemed illegal by the government. While to the instructors with students in China, it would be very helpful to know what can and can’t be accessed there, as a traveler, downloading an application, such as Freegate, to your computer prior to your trip to China will make you feel at home with your computer. This is something I haven’t tried, but certainly will for my next trip.

Ian Hall

Get Lazy and Automate

“But being lazy means you aren’t productive, right?”


Being lazy is about getting as much done as you can with as little effort as possible. Think “task streamlining” rather than “task avoidance.”

The tasks that take the most time for me are repetitive text-manipulation tasks and responding to email, so those are the two things I’ve worked on automating the most.

The tools I prefer are Autohotkey (free) for Windows or Text Expander ($35) for Mac. Both allow you to set up keyboard macros which will perform longer text-entry tasks. I will not go into incredible depth for either of them, but I will go into the basics of why they’re useful.

What Email Signatures?

We all have to sign our emails; it’s polite.

And it takes a while, especially when you add up the 10 to 20 seconds you spend per email every day. Today I sent fifty-six emails. Fifty-six emails multiplied by 15 seconds to sign the email (on the conservative end) is 840 seconds which is about 14 minutes per day spent signing emails.

But wait, I use signatures!

Well that’s great but it’s not flexible. My signatures vary depending on who I am emailing. I use formal signatures and informal signatures and all sorts in between.

For example, when I type “ssq”, Text Expander types:

If there is anything else I can help with, please let me know.

Ian at FITS

This is great! Now I never have to think about how to sign off on an email again. I write what I have to say, type “ssq”, and send it off.

Or I can type “sse”, and Text Expander types:

Ian at FITS

“Yeah but that takes no time to type—you must type really slowly.”


It took me 4.8 seconds averaged over six attempts at typing it really quickly.

Don’t believe me? You try.

Actual Email Messages

Now think about the longer text you type over and over and over.

Here’s a sample short snippet I type five to fifty times per day:


Your add user request has been completed. Please log in and ensure that the user(s) appear as they should.

It’s a greeting and one line of text all of which takes about 16 seconds to write. So again, lots of time wasted writing the same thing over and over and sometimes I’d misspell things or send the wrong information or whatever further extending the time it takes to write.

The rate most people perform composition typing at is nineteen words per minute (Karat, et. al., 1999). If you compositionally type similar bodies of text regularly you’re wasting time.

Now imagine if that were two paragraphs consisting of three to five sentences typed two times per day. Times four per week (lucky you, working four days a week). Times four weeks per month.

Now let’s take my wonderful body of add-user text above, which is about twenty words. If compositionally you type nineteen words per minute, it will take you one minute to type that sentence, times three sentences per paragraph (low end), so at three minutes per paragraph times two paragraphs, you’re spending six minutes per day composing each email. If you have two students or coworkers a day who ask similar questions, you are spending 12 minutes a day doing unnecessary, repetitive work.

Multiply that by your generous four-day work week, times four weeks per month, and you’re spending 3.5 hours per month writing just that one email over and over. Now if you regularly compose five similar emails, it scales quickly.

Suddenly you are at 15 hours per month wasted.

And knowing you, everything is misspelled, has coffee spilled on it, and the really important bit of information got left out anyway.



Karat, C.M., Halverson, C., Horn, D. and Karat, J. (1999), Patterns of entry and correction in large vocabulary continuous speech recognition systems, CHI 99 Conference Proceedings, 568-575.

Dalice Spitzer

What Happens to the Self-Published When We Go Paperless?

I have a particular penchant toward the self-published.

You see, I grew up with printed pages still warm from a Kinko’s copy machine. I was taught with manifestos stapled sideways, printed in perfect punk-rock attitude and do-it-yourself aesthetic. A girl who was awash with the unspoken mission statement of “anyone-can-do-it” chanted by movements like Riot Grrrl and Act-Up, I learned that you didn’t have to hit the New York Times Best Seller List to be considered an author. I learned that, given time, a typewriter, and some dimes for the copy machine, you could print your own stories, your own news, and your own ideas. I learned that my voice and thoughts counted. I learned the magic of self-publishing.

So it’s no wonder that when I went to teach for the first time, I was influenced by pedagogical tactics that pushed for decentralizing knowledge. When setting up our reading list, I worked hard to use anthologies, collect stories from multiple voices, and use small-press books by relatively unknown authors.

Moreover, I wanted the texts we read to exist outside of the echo chamber that can be created in academia. The feedback of one text calling to another, that text calling to a next, all reverberating until the topic at hand is buried beneath layers of rhetoric. I wanted fresh views, even if the topics we were discussing were well known. I wanted my students to hear the poetry in knowledge, the lyricism in all our different epistemologies. So, I brought them zines, written by local authors, and even brought in my thesis, which a friend of mine had formatted into a folded-in-half, 8”-by-11” zine. Basically, I wanted my students to tap into a more creative, yet still academic means of learning.

But now? Now, I’m a little worried. What will happen to the self-published when we all go paperless? It’s hard not to hear the clamor of eBooks and digital readers, let alone not see them in the hands of all the morning commuters. I’ve heard all about how libraries across the country are digitizing their catalogs; I’ve seen how the old paperback novel is now kindling the fires of online eBook sales. It’s hard not to see that every nook of the Internet is saturated by the phenomenon.

But, for a girl like me? A girl who not only self-publishes her work, but is a hopeless consumer of zines and small-press works, well, I worry about the impact on small-press and indie authors when we go fully digital and paperless.

But there is hope. If you search the Internet a little bit, multiple web-based zine libraries are popping up, all with digitized archives ready to be downloaded and consumed. (If you’re interested, check out the list of zine archives from For indie authors, is the place to go, with its wide selection of self-published eBooks. And then, of course, there is Apple’s release of iBook Author, the Mac-based application that allows anyone to create their own multi-touch textbooks. So, suffice it to say, at the moment, there seems to be space still for the self-published, ready and waiting to fill your digital bookshelf.