tools and gadgets

My Must Have Mac Apps for 2017

Acknowledgements to the list-makers, whose work I enjoy so much. The structure of this list based on John Vorhees work for Mac Stories

This year I’ve dug myself deeper and deeper into the Apple universe, a Mac and a Mac Mini and even using a MacBook Pro for work (not the sturdy Windows 10 workhorse) coupled with an iPad, iPhone and now even an iWatch. It hasn’t been without problems. iCloud syncing and security is a bit of a disaster, but yes, I’m in.

So, I’m always looking for apps that work as seamlessly as possible between the Mac and the IOS version, using some sort of cloud application in the background and all of that is getting better. Most of the time now I can rely on the thing to be backed up, for the version I open on the iPad really to be the version I was working on last night on the Mac.

I’ve mostly used Vorhee’s categories for my app list, except I deleted his podcast and communications categories. I’ve kept these:

  • Writing
  • Reading and research
  • Images and Video
  • Utilities
  • Task management and planning

Writing

iA Writer

For the last couple of years I’ve been using a text editor called Ulysses but then it went to a ridiculous subscription model and I moved to iA Writer (you can read about that move here) I won’t repeat my earlier blog post on why iA Writer works for me, but you can read that post yourself here Enough to say, that iA Writer does the distraction free thing really well, for a fair price. And, yeah, I wrote this on iA Writer and just ‘shared’ into WordPress.

iA Writer
iA Writer

OneNote

My work in a school is dominated by Microsoft: the Office suite, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint. Of the MS world, OneNote stands out as an organising and note-taking tool for me, and with OneNote Classroom Notebooks, it’s a pretty potent teaching tool as well with increasing power that’s been in the Windows version, coming to the Mac as well.

OneNote
OneNote

Scrivener

I sometimes feel that I should like Scrivener more than I actually do. I do like it, especially for longer-form writing, and especially for output to ePub or a range of other formats. It got a pretty big upgrade this year and looks better than ever; it’s just that, writing poetry a lot, I’m just as happy working in iA Writer most of the time.

Scrivener
Scrivener

Reading and Research

Feedly is my go-to RSS Reader, and one of the apps I open on my iPad every morning (just after the email, and right before Tweetbot)

I also like Pocket as a place to store articles I want to get to later on; it’s pretty amazing how beautiful the articles look, and how quickly they format, in this tool. It has an off-line mode too for those plane trips.

Evernote is also a tool I’ve used for a long time. I’ve got over 6k notes there now: snippets, recipes, book reviews, modem manuals. I keep thinking it’s something I could do without, but it isn’t. It’s like the bottom drawer of my desk; I just stick stuff in there when I don’t know what else to do with them.

For real ‘reading’ I use the standard Kindle App.

Pocket
Pocket

Images and Video

I take a lot of photos. While I wasn’t happy to subscribe to a text editor (see my Goodbye Ulysses post) I do subscribe to the Adobe Creative Suite; notably the Photoshop, Lightroom bundle. I was very sceptical about the new more online-orientated Lightroom CC product, but it syncs beautifully and is getting more and more tools.

Lightroom CC
Lightroom CC

I’ve also had a good look at a photo editor called Luminar, and particularly the new 2018 version. It’s $99AUD and has some impressive filters and effects and is getting better and better, updating fast. If I drop Photoshop it might be for this. I’ve tried, and beein unimpressed by Pixemalator and Snapseed on the Mac (though they both seem nicer on IOS) Luminar are saying an image organising tool is coming in 2018. I used to use Picasa for that, and miss a tool that can scroll effortlessly through thumbnails on the computer; maybe I should look at Adobe Bridge again?

Luminar
Luminar

I don’t do much with video, so I’m happy with iMovie and a little video converter called Video Monkey which quickly takes the .mov files out of my Olympus Pen and turns them into usable .mp4s.

Utilities

I use Alfred literally every time I’m on the Mac, to search, to launch programs and to skip to the next track on iTunes. If you’re keyboard orientated, like I am, it’s a real boon. (I should say at this point that I always use an external mechanical keyboard on my Macs. So much so that, whenever I have to type something in class on the Macbook keyboard, and the students can see how many mistakes I make on that terrible keyboard, it’s always worth a laugh.

Alfred
Alfred

For smaller, more specific, very targeted tasks I love Name Changer, which does the obvious, itsyCal, a little calendar that sits in your top menu bar, and LastPass for a password manager and Type it 4 Me, a great little productivity tool that replaced Text Expander for me when it too headed down the subscription model. With Type it 4 Me, I have a list of keyboard shorcuts xdate gives me the date, for example: 23/12/2017 and those snipppets are synced in the backgrouond so they’re always up to date on all my machines. The thing with keyboard shortcuts is that you dont’ want to have to re-learn them too often.

Type it 4 Me
Type it 4 Me

I don’t used backup software since I moved to OneDrive. I’m now that confident that it’s backing up my files in my personal cloud. I used Super Duper for a while but it seemed to become increasingly complex (have a go at backing up some folders rather than all, if you have half a day to spare!) I also use Dropbox for sharing files that I’m wanting to access and share currently.

Task Management and Planning

Task management is probably the place where I’ve spent the most money, taking a close look at Things, Wunderlist and ToDo before settling for 2DO which suits me very well.

2Do syncs seamlessly across my devices and is customisable enough to have projects, task lists and sub-projects. Importantly, for me, it follows the Getting Things Done paradigm created by David Allen, or at least follows it well enough for me.

2Do
2Do

For planning, and communicating, using concepts, I use MindNode, a concept mapping tool …iStat Mini, a compact way to keep an eye on your CPU, memory pressure, battery, disk usage and network activity.

And, if I want to do a proper email, not just a couple of lines composed in Inbox, I use Airmail email client.

Thanks for listening, and thanks to John for the inspiration.
Happy New Year.

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A year with the iPad in the classroom

A year in, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve learned a little about the iPad as a teaching tool and what next directions in education technology look most promising.

The iPad is certainly a great tool in lots of ways. It’s light, robust, with good battery life and longevity. My Year 9 students were into their third year with the device and almost all of them were still working nearly all the time; albeit a couple with cracked screens and bumped corners.

I was easily able to share content via our LMS (Schoolbox) and they could submit work, research and had a set of ebooks for their core subjects (the Jacaranda pack)

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘write’ on them, for while students planned presentations on their iPads they didn’t really take notes. I did show them OneNote a couple of times (I used it constantly as a teaching tool too) and three or four students immediately took to it in a big way, loving the organisational features. The others figured that since they had a paper English book they might as well write in it and, if they’re using the ebook on the iPad it’s pretty tricky to write anything down on the iPad at the same time. I didn’t push it too much; it’s not yet the dominant culture, especially in the middle years.

Also, if you’ve ever spent any time at all typing anything substantial at all (even a Year 9 English essay) on the iPad screen, it isn’t that much fun. Ergo, one interesting moment late in the year with the students working in groups putting together a presentation on their chosen book. In one of the groups a student had bought in a MacBook and all the students in that group gathered around her in designing their Keynote presentation. For some reason (I’m thinking keyboard) that was a much more natural place to do that task.

All this has happened as I’ve noticed the rise and rise of Chromebooks, particularly in the US educational context. Chromebooks are cheap, robust, secure, loved by the bursar and the IT manager. They’ve got keyboards and (I hear) work better offline than they used to. Student A can log out and Student B can log in. You could write an essay with ease and, if you were in a GAFE context a whole lot of other things might happen. I’m thinking of buying one myself to see how good they actually are.

Meanwhile, we’ve decided to offer teachers a choice for the first time next year for their replacement notebooks. The current laptop is an HP running Windows 10: slow to start up and would be an ideal anchor for a small yacht. Next year teachers can choose between a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and a MacBook Air. I think some of the Maths teachers particularly will be interested in the touch and draw features in the Microsoft choice.

There’s certainly plenty of good choices; of course, in the end it will be all about the teaching that goes with these tools.

Life with a smartwatch

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Just before Christmas I saw an offer on a Pebble Smartwatch. $100AU from Amazon (+ postage) for the basic model, in black. I’d been a little jealous of a friend’s Apple watch for six months so decided to take the plunge and see how much value there is in a watch.

I’d been wearing a Fitbit for a while and that buzzed when the phone rang and gave information as to who was ringing, which was handy, and the Pebble does that too, and that’s the essence of it. It syncs via Bluetooth to your phone and any notifications come to your wrist.

I’ve been using it now for three months and thought I might reflect on the idea of the smartwatch, and the Pebble specifically. I’m not trying to do a full-on review, there’s lots of sites like Mashable and iMore that do that kind of thing; this is a more personal kind of reflection.

On the positive side, I’ve actually been impressed with just how handy it can be have a snippet of information on your wrist, rather than pull it out of your pocket, and not just for the ‘persons liked your post’ notifications, but messages, Google updates, and more. I like the way I can alter the watch faces and I like some of the customisation and apps you can buy (including AFL footy score updates!) I seem to get just under a week’s battery out of the Pebble, which is also pretty good.

On the negative side, the Pebble is still a bit limited. You can’t make calls or record any audio. My black and white screen is pretty basic. It’s one of those things that’s useful, not essential, nice to have. It might be a different thing if I was looking at the Apple watch, but at $500AU minimum that’s in a different price-bracelet to the Pebble.

So, are there any educational possibilities beyond the slight paranoia around watches and exams? Maybe not. I’ve yet to see a compelling use-case for the watch as a learning tool, but it may come. Field trips supplemented by GPS, quick messaging to groups on the run, the kind of quick updates, alerts, hat might prove useful for students out on an excursion.

I’m still wearing it; at $100 it’s been worth it, but I’m not desperate to spend $500 for something with the current feature-set.

Talk and Tek (the way I teach now)

collaboration_2015-04-24_16-57-40

This week I was finishing up my planning for a unit of work in Literature loosely called ‘Views and Values’ and focusing, in this case, on the poetry of Adrienne Rich and the kinds of viewpoints about the world, as well as the underpinning values that emerge, in her work.

Rich is an American poet with strong feministic beliefs so, besides being an excellent poet, she’s ideally placed in this aspect of the course. Students need to work with the poetry but also unpack and analyse the way the author critiques society. It’s challenging, but also really interesting.

This is a senior Literature class, mostly of self-motivated students who are interested in the material and want to be there. It’s a privilege and makes teaching a pleasure. My teaching in this subject involves a lot of talk: discussion, student presentations, me talking (sometimes too much), students talking (in groups, pairs, or whole class) reading aloud, annotating, summarising, synthesising, analysing, coming to judgement and personal evaluation. Developing a reading, by talking it through, is the key I say.

But it’s not talk and chalk, but talk and tek, for me in my teaching these days. Quite a while ago now I pretty much stopped using the analog whiteboard altogether and projected the notes and discussion points on a screen via data projector; firstly using PowerPoint as the preferred note-taking tool, and then, as screen resolution improved to Word, and finally OneNote. Where is is today.

OneNote is a wonderful tool for organising and capturing note and research, but I find it also worked really well to organise the notes (and teaching) for a course. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but my Literature OneNote notebook has a section for each text and pretty much a page for each lesson. It structures itself wonderfully as the lessons unfold. Students would have their OneNote notebook too, and I’d generally email them a OneNote page for homework, or with material to read. Moving notes around from email into OneNote is a bit of a pain, but it was still worth it.

This year, a lot of that approach changed as we’ve been trialling Office 265 and OneDrive. The game-changer here is the possibilities in OneNote Notebook Creator; a tool that takes a lot of the hassle out of setting up and maintaining OneNote as a learning tool, and adds some powerful features that simply weren’t possible or were really tricky to do before: a collaboration space and a personal shared notebook space with each student. You can read about the features on the Microsoft site, but I’ve used OneNote this year for course content delivery, for collaboration spaces for student groups, for a space for students to submit work for feedback and lots more. Its the main teaching tool I use.

Along with that, I’ve got a couple of standard technology tools I use and like. I like Padlet for online brainstorming, and use Schoology, thought not as much as last year, mainly for its assessment and feddback and assignment/homework completion qualities. I put student results up there so students are able to get their results online rather than wait and get the results in class in that social context. I also have used Office Mix to jazz up PowerPoints with audio and video, Office Sway a new tool for delivering information; you can see a Sway on an Adrienne Rich I put together HERE. (However, I’m thinking that the main use of Sway might be in students presenting their own findings and in their presentations, and use Diigo, online bookmarking to set up lists like Resources on Adrienne Rich, to supplement the classroom work and resources.

Funny, that after I’ve been so critical of Windows and the operating system and the Office tools, and am such a fan of the Apple ecosytem that the principle tools I find myself working and teaching with in 2015 are from Microsoft.

The future is blended

Blender

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a presentation I’m giving at two Oxford Conferences soon. The title of the presentation is The Future is Blended, and the descriptor for my session is:

In this workshop the focus will be on blended learning and approaches that extend and enhance the classroom experience. The latest research tells us what we have always felt: that good teaching is critical to student learning and that feedback to students is also critical. New technologies provide teachers with powerful tools to organise, collaborate and give feedback and to re-envision the classroom for the twenty-first-century learner. In this workshop participants will get a snapshot of the latest learning theory and get to play with some digital tools in a range of platforms that that can have immediate application in any classroom. The future is not digital, but it is blended.

The Education Changes Lives Conference is focused on Australian Curriculum but my session is more about technology and blending traditional approaches with new ideas. Last year I presented in the English teachers stream; this year it’s for general teaching audience.

The Melbourne conference is on May 16th

The Sydney Conference is on May 30th

Hope to see you there.

OneNote Unchained

I’ve always said in recent years that the only thing keeping me interested in the Windows platform was OneNote.

Over the past five years or so I’ve gradually re-invested in the Apple platform after abandoning it for the Windows machines of various 1-1 notebooks programs over the years including Toshibas, ACER, Fujitsu, IBMs and others. I bought an iPod, then an iPhone and an iPad and then a Mac Mini. Back to the Mac; since my first computer at work was an Apple 2, and the first computer I bought was an Apple 2C, so sleek and modern at the time. I had a Mac Classic all those years ago.

So I was pretty interested to see Microsoft finally release a Mac version of OneNote this week. At last! And free! OneNote has been my favourite Microsoft Office component on Windows for a long time, (it’s my central teaching tool) and now it’s on the Mac, syncing via OneDrive.

The Mac version isn’t quite as full-featured; is pretty light on features: it lacks tight integration with Outlook, for example and I can’t see sub-sections or a way to move stuff around.  But it’s finally there and a worthy developing competitor of Evernote at last. It’s on the Mac App Store and went to No. 1 straight away.

Makes me want to go out and buy a Macbook, which I’m sure isn’t exactly what Microsoft intended!

If you haven’t heard about OneNote, check out some of the links below:

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External links:

5 Ways to make use of OneNote for Students

4 Tips for Students using OneNote

OneNote is a note-taking Power Tool (Lifehacker)

Teaching and Learning with OneNote