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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I prepared this prezi for the benefit of students at MST, comparing EndNote and Zotero as tools for managing research references and citing them in essays and assignments. Included is an explanation of the general use of a reference manager, and space to include treatment of ComWriter, a new Australian start-up that is the first I’ve heard of that integrates both word processing and reference management within the one tool.
This is my attempt to describe visually the process I go through in researching a topic and writing a formal piece about it. I’ve been interested in how this process works and how I might improve it. First, my best effort at diagramming the process (since I’m tired of working on this diagram and want to draw a line under it!):
And by way of comparison, someone else’s effort to show what they do:
Continually analyzing our own research process is a bit like self-analysis. Too much of it is self-defeating, becoming a substitute for actually getting on with life/research & publication. But a little self-checking can be good. Life is too short to be researching in an inefficient or ineffective way.
Here are some digital tools I think I could use and would like to try out:
- The Adobe Creative Cloud, e.g. DreamWeaver for website construction and InDesign which might allow digital publishing…but I’m worried about learning curves, and at the end of the day, just tight. So we’ll see…looks professional, which is good.
- Scalar, advertising itself as ‘born digital’, so should not be of that genre of “works on a device, but otherwise is just a book of text.” Free, too.
- Circos, for data visualization on a circle format. For some reason, I think this is a great way to condense information into a small space, if it isn’t allowed to blow out into too much complexity. I’m not thinking just of data visualization that uses a table full of stats, but of idea visualization.
- PearlTrees, as a way to introduce hierarchical structure into a Pinterest-like visual arrangement of interests.
- Substance, another digital authoring tool. I’d try iBooks Author, if I was willing and, shall we say, liquid enough to make the conversion to the Mac parallel universe. But it’s surprising how well free tools rival the paid ones sometimes. Another free offering is Sophie, if it’s still supported.
- Tableau, a free data visualization tool, recently found.
- WorkTop, a program to plan research and study workflow, which seems a valuable function. Maybe, as an alternative, Aeon, which offers to do the same thing on a timeline format???
- Scrivener, a tool to help the writer. Birthed in the Mac universe, and tailored first of all for fiction writers, I infer, but perhaps useful for non-fiction as well. People out there in web land swear by it.
- Compendium, another tool from the universities, designed for literary analysis, content curation, idea mapping.
- Infogr.am or another infographics tool. Tried this one with distinct lack of success, but would like to produce good infographics, so need to plug in some extra IQ and return to this or a rival offering.
Not many of you out there reading these things, but I’m always eager to hear feedback on things you’ve tried and love or loathe, or clarification of which tool is intended for what purpose. So comments are most welcome! Meanwhile, here are interesting digital resources I’ve found and grouped into Pinterest boards:
Next post, God willing (or ‘inshallah’, as a colleague who was a returned missionary from the Islamic world used to say), a post on the Old Testament – I’ve found something interesting in 2 Kings!
Now for something different – 3 top ten lists of software tools:
1. Top Ten Software Tools I Depend On
Sorry about the following; I’m just a Windows man, and once came near the bottom of one computer class at high school. You’ve been warned:
- MS Outlook, without which I’d never see an email. I also use its Task List religiously.
- MS Word, one of those programs that you never manage to fully exploit. There’s always more hidden power you don’t know about.
- MS PowerPoint, the backbone of my teaching materials. I prepare no teaching notes other than to outline my thinking well in my PowerPoints, many of which have been through 6 or 8 incarnations. PowerPoint is actually very capable in things like managing multiple layers, complex animation sequences, attaching links and actions to objects, etc. I also like its range of colour combinations, although I ought to get hold of some new templates.
- EndNote is probably next, where I keep absolutely all my ongoing life bibliography, especially for teaching and research. Though I still type entries a little too often. And I’ve been tempted by the opposition (see below).
- BibleWorks is my biblical studies staple. If I’d been born in a Mac universe, I suspect I’d be using Accordance, which seems better-looking and more user-friendly, and some other birth circumstances might have put me in Logos world, but since I try to come by a lot of books and commentaries second hand or cheaply if possible, collecting virtual Logos libraries is not presently my way of operating.
- Prezi is often my preferred way to do class presentations, notwithstanding my continuing dependence on PowerPoint. The canvas layout and zooming ability opens up nonlinear teaching possibilities that just aren’t there with PP, though in other respects it actually feels more limited and difficult to use. Zooming is your only way to compress info, really, though it is possible to have frames of content that are invisible until they’re called upon. See my link to my current Prezi collection in the right side bar.
- MS OneNote, the last MS program I’ll include here. I was put onto it by a work colleague 1-2 years ago and now depend on it as a kind of sketchpad and notebook, the way many people would use EverNote. It also syncs to the cloud, my OneDrive account (yes, it’s MS again).
- Google Chrome, for web browsing, after Explorer had trouble interacting with Moodle (below). My wife uses Firefox.
- Moodle, the open source LMS (learning management system) software used by our college. I’ve even dabbled briefly with the html on the odd occasion – a step forward for me.
- Sorry this is so boring, but #10 is actually Paint in Windows accessories. I use it to crop and convert Windows screen clippings to create images for Pinterest and other applications. It has became my key graphics translator tool. What a hacker, eh?
Next time: Top Ten Tools I’ve Begun to Dabble With