Double-Duty Software Tools for Teaching

Just an update on my experiments with software tools for study and research purposes. I thought I’d talk about this in terms of some that are meant to act as in-between tools that combine functions done singly by others. Sometimes such double-duty tools have worked for me, others not, and others I haven’t really tried. Here’s what I found out.

Teaching Technologies Diagram

  1. Microsoft Word you know. Zotero is a reference (or citation) manager that I have found more versatile than EndNote, particularly in its ability to cater well for notetaking, linking of references to each other, and instant harvesting of references from web pages such as lists of books on Amazon. (EndNote is more powerful in some ways, but on balance Zotero is more useful for me.) Now there is an Aussie startup called ComWriter that handles both word processing and the citing of sources. To combine these functions makes all the sense in the world to me. But as Darth Vader said, “It’s too late for me, son.” I’m familiar with MS Word and find it quite powerful and effective, though it isn’t “the latest thing to come across the wire.” And I’ve invested heavily, first in EndNote, and now even more in Zotero. I can’t start from the beginning again, and don’t really feel the need to. But if I was a student starting out, I’d give it a serious look, especially now that it’s serious for student.
  2. While we’re talking about Zotero, I gave a good go to a program meant to combine the functions of a citation manager and a mindmap. What a great idea, to mindmap your references! One edition of Zotero was blessed with a user-written add-on (the kind of thing you get with such open-source software) that rendered one’s Zotero references in a fantastic concept mapper called VUE, or Visual Understanding Environment, put out by TUFTS University. VUE is very powerful, though I have not always found the instructions attached easy to understand. I tend instead to use the simpler mindmapping program FreePlane in many cases. That’s where Docear comes in. It is a program that combines FreePlane and a reference manager called JabRef. Again, a great idea, and I’ve toyed with it, not to replace Zotero but as a next step. It handles references internally and readily maps them. But…I haven’t found it always easy to use, hitting roadblocks at times that I can’t find a way around. That kind of lost time is hard to replace. I’m simply copying and pasting Zotero references one by one into FreePlane and manipulating them from there as needed.
  3. It is also possible to graphically map your writing process, and Scrivener famously allows writers to do this, including corkboarding the plot of a novel and moving units of writing around. It’s all the rage these days, and I was tempted to take the bait, but it doesn’t do one very critical thing for academic writing. It does not handle or integrate the referencing process. And for me, that’s a deal-breaker. I have experimented with using FreePlane to map out an article-length piece of writing in skeleton form, and found it to work well. So there’ll be no ‘literature and latte’ for me.
  4. On a different plane, I use presentation tools a lot, especially PowerPoint and now, mostly, Prezi. And increasingly needing custom graphics, I’ve delved into the world of vector graphics, which, instead of being composed of bits, are constructed using mathematical functions. The outcome is graphics that never lose resolution at any magnification, perfect for zoomable presentation formats. Being cheap, rather than Adobe Illustrator, I use the open-source alternative Inkscape for this purpose and increasingly love it. The halfway house in this case is Sozi, a zoomable presenter built originally as an extension for Inkscape, and now a stand-alone program. I’m new to it, but find it easy to use. It effectively takes a series of snapshots of your vector graphic in SVG format, such as Inkscape produces, that become your presentation slides and provides for customized transitions between them. It’s all zoomable and rotatable just as Prezi is, but rather than the somewhat hand-holding though very user-friendly graphics capabilities of Prezi, you have all the graphical freedom of Inkscape to work with. It looks very promising.

I am always evolving in my use of software tools for research and teaching, and have to watch that I don’t pick up something new to learn every couple of months. That’s not a good use of time. But good tools can mean good craftworks, and anything that expedites research or makes teaching more effective is good. Explore!

P.S. the above graphic was whipped up in Inkscape – took me most of an hour, but an expert user might have taken 10 minutes. Right now, though, WordPress won’t let me embed vector graphics, as far as I can tell.

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