Perfect ‘Simple’ Note Making

Simplenote

I’m always looking for ways to improve my productivity. Having been an early adopter of both Google Calendar and Google Tasks, I have felt for some time, that there was a link in the chain missing. While both apps have the ability to serve as a place to write and store simple lists, I don’t feel that their UI’s lend themselves to this function very well. For me, Google Calendar and Google Tasks are about events that are in the future: days, weeks and months away. Between them I  schedule meetings, presentations, important tasks and events; input key dates from the school calendar such as parents evenings; and perosnal events like dentist appointments and birthdays.

What I wanted, was a tool in which I could keep and access my day-to-day ‘to do list’. Stuff like email Leah’s parents to say how well she is doing or finish marking my Year Tens’ writing assessments. And I wanted it to allow me to record random thoughts, blog ideas; to keep a list of books I wish to read; and to take notes quickly and efficiently in meetings. What would be even better if these notes could be synced in the cloud and I could access them on or offline wherever I was.

Que: Simplenote; Simplenote for iPhone; mNote for Android; and Notational Velocity.

These four tools/apps have provided me with the perfect ‘simple’ note making process that I have been searching for. These apps working in tandem truly represent what mobile sync was created for and the integration is seamless. Here is a break down of how this set up works (for me).

Simplenote – To get started you need to create an account. Like many apps and tools today this process is simple and efficient. Signing up allows the magic to happen providing the cloud based storage and syncing functionality for your notes. If you’r connected to the internet, got a wifi connection or are on 3G your notes will sync so no matter where you are or what device you have at hand you can check, add to, edit and delete your notes. Once you are signed up, you can move straight on to downloading the iPhone app.

iPhone – (iPod touch in my case) – The app is as quick to download as it is to sign up for the account. Once installed you are greeted by a series of helpful notes that are waiting to help you make the best use of Simplenote. The UI is clean; adding notes is a synch and while you are connected to wifi/3G your notes will sync frequently. Therefore there are almost no buttons to be clicked including no save button – it is simply not needed. Once you have added your account info you are away. I think that the native app has the most pleasing UI and most seamless functionality so I make use of it around the house, giving my HTC Wildfire a rest.

mNote – I also needed to be able to make and access my notes while at work and with no native app for Android I searched the Market and found mNote. It was as quick and easy to install as the iPhone app and while it is a little rough around the edges in the UI department, it certainly makes up for it in ease of use. The white on black interface displays well on my HTC Wildfire’screen and has become one of my most used apps after returning to school this past week. I have used it in numerous meetings and even recorded thoughts and ideas on the fly during lessons as they have occurred to me.

Notational Velocity – The final piece of the puzzle was to find a desktop app that I could use to access my notes while I was at my school desk or working at home. This would allow for copy/paste functionality and for me to continue to be able to make notes whenever they occurred. Notational Velocity offers an extremely lite client with a great UI (a common theme amongst Simplenote apps!) and boasts an impressive list of keyboard shortcuts (included as a pre-installed note) making it very easy to use. I have already used it for taking notes in longer meetings and even wrote the first draft of this post with it.

Like Google Calendar and Google Tasks before it, Simplenote has quickly become a staple of my day-to-day routine. What do these tools have in common? Great UIs; cloud based sync across multiple devices; and ease of use. A winning combination every time!

Boo #2: Shipping, Gifts & Email

This is a recording of a blog post published earlier this month. You can read the original post here where you will find all of the links to people, books and concepts that I mention in the recording.

You can find all of my Boos here.

And you can subscribe to my Boos direct via iTunes or RSS.

Shipping, Giving Gifts & Combating the Email Onslaught

seth godin blogI finished reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin a few weeks ago and while I found it to be an interesting read, the main thesis of the text was nothing I didn’t already practise. I strive every day to “ship” and “give gifts” and I can’t evangelise enough on how important both of these concepts are as a teacher.

You have to “ship” because your day is filled with deadlines: lessons to be planned and taught, data to be input, reports to be written and homework to be marked. If you want the learning inside and outside of your classroom to be any good you have to “ship” on all of these tasks. Also, you have to “give gifts” because it’s good to be generous. Share what you do, not to get noticed and win promotion but to help make sure that every student gets the best possible education they can. I love to “ship”. I love to “give gifts”. Why? Because I care about learning. In fact, I love learning; it’s the reason I’m a teacher.

Shipping is fraught with risk and danger.

(Fear of shipping, Godin, 2010)

It’s easy to be afraid of “shipping” and “giving gifts” because many teachers are perfectionists and many teachers are protective about what they do.

  • What if every part of your lesson has not been meticulously planned?
  • What if you didn’t mark every essay in minute detail?
  • If you share an idea or a resource what if someone steals it and presents it as their own?
  • What if no one thinks what you are doing in your classroom is of any value?

To questions like these, I say remember it’s the students in your classroom that matter, so get smart. Digitise everything you do/use and back it up. Reuse and improve should become your personal mantra from day one. The better you get at this the more time you will have for the marking and data analysis which is (honestly) more important than much of the planning that you spend your time doing. What’s more, good formative assessment and understanding your students’ potential will ultimately lead to better planning any way. They inform each other and will lead to better teaching and better learning.

One of the keys for me, in ensuring that I “ship” on time is the way I deal with email. I, like many of you, work at a school where email has become the number one method of communication. However, the reality of this is that your inbox can have a stranglehold on your productivity as a teacher and certainly get in the way of the learning by impinging on the time you should be spending marking, planning and experimenting.

To combat the email onslaught I religiously use the following approach to email set out by Merlin Mann in Inbox Zero. Implement this into your work day when checking your email and your productivity will improve significantly, leaving more time for the marking, planning and most importantly the learning.

inbox zero

As for “giving gifts”: blog. Blog what you do, get a creative commons license and don’t let someone else show your ideas off. Do it yourself! Deliver CPD, sign up to present at a TeachMeet, build sessions into department meetings to share your ideas and encourage colleagues share what they are doing. If you take control of your gift giving you will find that you can (and will want to) share selflessly. Others will benefit but so will you.

To close, I will give a gift and allow Seth to have the last word:

A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.

(Fear of shipping, Godin, 2010)

Creating Desktop Apps With Fluid

fluid

My best and most recent tech find for Mac is Fluid. Fluid is an application that allows you to create standalone desktop versions of your favourite web apps such as Gmail or Twitter. Neither of these appealed to me as I have Gmail synced with Mail on my Mac, and on my iPod Touch (I also sync Google Contacts, Google Calendar and my school Outlook account) and I use TweetDeck to keep up with my PLN.

However, there were some web based apps that I felt would be great to have on my desktop due to the fact that it would be good to be able to view them within a separate interface. What’s more after doing a little more research I found that if I used Fluid to create apps I would be able to make use of user scripts to tweak them – that sounded great, so I decided to begin with Google Tasks as I am always looking for ways to improve my organisation and productivity.

Google Tasks

And here it is. It looks clean, signs in automatically and everything works: Adding tasks, adding info, marking when complete, syncing with Google Calendar and therefore Ipod touch.

tasks

If you would like to do this you need to download Fluid. Once installed, open Fluid. You will see a dialog box (see below) into which you need to type or copy/paste the following URL: http://mail.google.com/tasks. Name the app Google Tasks. Keep the location as Applications. Download an icon to use, I chose one created by Max Headwound on Flickr (image below), found on the Flickr: Fluid Icons Pool. Then click “Create”.  You will see a new dialog box asking you to launch the app. Voilà, you are done!  You can then drag the app from the Applications folder to the dock.

fluid new app creation

tasks icon

For ease of use I also added my newly created Google Tasks app to my login items so that it would load automatically when I boot up my Mac. To do this go to System Preferences / Accounts / Login items / Click the + symbol and select the Google Tasks app from the Applications folder.

login items

There are also some nice icons available at IconsPedia, choose the icon that suits you! As a Mac user image is important to me so selecting the right icon was as important as choosing which web apps I would turn into desktop apps. My next web based app that I use every day was Instapaper.

Instapaper

The process is the same as before using the following url: http://www.instapaper.com/u. If you have not used Instapaper before, I highly recommend it. It makes up an integral part of my web workflow, something I plan to write more about in a future post.

Instapaper allows you to store web pages and articles that you find to read later. It makes use of a bookmarklet to do this but if you are using the beta build of Google Chrome you can use the Instachrome extension. I have been using this extension for almost a month now and it makes adding pages to Instapaper a breeze.

Instapaper comes into its own if you have an iPod touch as the articles can be synced for offline browsing. As a serious user of Instapaper I recommend the pro version, I use folders and it helps to have them synced, saves having to repeat actions later as everything can be done from the iPod.

Here are the results of setting up Instapaper with Fluid:

instapaper

I didn’t stop with this one in simply creating the app I also installed a user script called Instapaper Beyond. It’s a script for Fluid created by Brett Terpstra which adds keyboard navigation and some special features. For example: (alt+g) brings up the “Go to folder” menu – just one of the very useful functions offered in this script.

instapaper beyond go menu

There are many more functions that make browsing Instapaper very enjoyable all of which can be controlled by the keyboard. Pressing (h) will bring up a full list of them.

instapaper keyboard navigation

And that’s it. Two apps that help improve my productivity and workflow when surfing the web. I think that I am going to create a stand alone Google Reader app as this makes up another integral part of my web workflow.

If you have any questions or want some advice about this process please e-mail me or tweet me @jamesmichie. Comments are always welcome.