Writing about the software that I use to write

Note: I started writing this post more than a year ago and have regularly pushed it back in the queue. It began as a list of text editing software that I thought might be useful for people who are stuck using MS Word but has since grown beyond a simple list.

I like to think that I write a lot. I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be but I think I do a decent job of getting words onto the page, either here on the blog, journal articles, research proposals, lengthy emails to students, conference presentations, or notes in workshops I attend. I thought I’d give an overview of the different places I write because I know that many of my colleagues think that Microsoft Word is the only option, which makes me sad.

Web-based editors

There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing tools that are web-based. They’re always up-to-date, you don’t have to worry about backing up or even saving, and they don’t burden you with too many features that you’ll never use. By and large, they get out of the way and let you write. Of course, the downside is that you have to be online to use them, which isn’t always possible.

The first service I tried was Draft. It has some amazing features (great for productivity, rather than power), is regularly updated and has a really nice UI that gets out of the way when it’s not needed. My only concern is that the offline access isn’t entirely intuitive and is still under development. I tend to use Draft to get the ideas out of my head and onto a “page”. It has a really minimalist interface, and with the browser in full screen mode, I can just write without any distractions. Once I’ve put as much as I can into Draft, I export the document as a plain text file and either move it into a desktop editor or something like Google Drive (if it’s something I’m going to share with others).

Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.
Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.

I should probably also mention the Google Drive app, which runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as through the browser. While Google has made enormous improvements in the file management features of Drive and the new Docs has done a lot for offline access, native editing of Word documents and collaborative writing, it sometimes feel like it’s trying to kill a mosquito with a cannon. However, if you need your writing editor to do heavy lifting, then Drive and Docs may be good choices for you.

I use Google Docs / Drive regularly as part of various collaborative research projects I’m involved in, as well as some classes that we team teach. While I think it’s probably best in class when it comes to collaborative writing and editing because of the range of services (Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides), the online requirement can be problematic. The early versions of the Docs app on iOS and Android were also a bit clumsy. However, Drive is constantly getting better and it is now a service that I really can’t live without.

Google-Drive

Desktop editors

I also do a lot of more formal writing for research projects and for that I have always used a combination of LibreOffice and Dropbox to sync between machines. However, there’s a growing movement among academics who are switching from writing in Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice) and simply using markdown and plain text editors. If you’re thinking that, as an academic, Word has features that you absolutely must have, it seems that with a little bit of thought, you can avoid it completely.

I’ve also worked with Focuswriter, Gedit, and ReText on Linux, and MarkdownPad on Windows. They’re great text editors (as opposed to word processors) that I use almost solely for the initial stages of my academic writing and I’ve switched almost entirely to text-only editors for the original drafting of my work. One of the huge advantages of using text only is that I can edit any document on any device. Dropbox keeps them all in sync and every device can edit text. I do however, still use LibreOffice for the final editing of documents.

As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.
As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.

I should also note that I recently moved all of my note-taking to Evernote. What I really like about Evernote is that it has native desktop and mobile clients, as well as being browser-based, which means I can use it anywhere to capture almost anything.

Mobile editors

On mobile devices it’s a bit more complicated because there are literally hundreds of options. Also, the tools that are available for mobile are often not cross-platform, which means you really do have to go with text editors. I wanted something that integrated with Dropbox – which is where I keep all of my writing – and that allowed me to edit in plain text. Without going into the details of all the writing apps I’ve installed (and subsequently uninstalled), I finally settled on Plaintext on the iPad and Jotterpad X on my Nexus 7 and HTC One X. They’ve got the right balance between useful features that make writing easier and light enough that I can just write and not get distracted with features.

JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.
JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.

Something that has become very clear to me while writing this post is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a desktop, web-based or mobile writing app. Services like Drive (with it’s associated Docs, Sheets and Slides) are easily accessible across all three, and with the offline access available in Chrome and on mobile, it’s hard not to think seriously about moving there altogether.

T&L seminar with UCT Law Faculty

Earlier this year I was invited by Alan Rycroft at the UCT Law Faculty to give a presentation at a seminar on T&L. The seminar took place yesterday and I presented some research that I did in 2012 where we used Google Drive as an implementation platform for authentic learning. I’ve written about authentic learning before, so I won’t go into any more detail here.

I would however, like to share some of my thoughts and notes from the session. Unfortunately, I had to leave halfway through the presentations, so I missed the second half of the day.

Anton Fagan – The use of laptops in the classroom. Anton made a strong case for banning laptops in the classroom under certain conditions, specifically when students are taking notes during lectures. There seems to be evidence that, while using a laptop to take notes can result in higher fidelity (more notes and more accuracy) it also results in less understanding, probably as a result processing information differently depending on whether we type it or write it. However, we do need to be careful about conflating lecturing with learning. Most of the articles discussed seemed to posit that the ability to recall facts presented during a lecture was the same thing as learning. Coincidentally, I had recently read this article in the New Yorker, which discusses the same thing:

regardless of the kind or duration of the computer use, the disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz. The message of the study aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.

There are other studies that present similar findings but should we really be surprised by this? We’re saying that distracted students score poorly on tests of recall and understanding. This doesn’t seem to be about laptop usage, but rather that there are two other issues present.

  1. Students are more likely to be distracted when using an internet connected device during lectures, and are more likely to distract others
  2. Even when they are trying to take notes during the lecture, the act of typing those notes can degrade their processing relative to hand writing them

It seems that these two issues are relatively simple to address. In the first instance, work on improving your lecture so that students are less likely to be distracted, and in the second, make students aware that typing notes leads to lower levels of recall and understanding, but allow them to choose the method that best suits them. For example, I prefer that my notes more accurately capture what the speaker is saying. Afterwards, I go through my notes again, adding additional thoughts, linking to additional resources, and therefore engaging with the content a second time around. This is what I have done with these notes.

Geo Quinot – The LLB between profession and higher education. Geo presented his perspective on a set of policy frameworks, including recent proposals by the Council on Higher Education Task Team on Undergraduate Curriculum Structure. He discussed the relationships between the Profession and Higher Education the Quality Enhancement Project (QEP).

I found the talk to be a really comprehensive overview of the relevant policies and frameworks that will be placed centre stage over in South African higher education over the next few years. Unfortunately, there was way too much that was covered for me to try and sum up what was presented. I’ve linked to some of the documents that Geo referred to in the list at the end of this post.

Jacqui Yeats – Student engagement in lectures and tutorials: an experiment. Jacqui shared some of her experiences of teaching large classes in the Law Faculty. I was impressed with her systematic approach to changing the way she lectures, and took away the following ideas:

  • When your class size exceeds a certain number (and no-one really knows what that number is) you move from being a lecturer to being a performer or public speaker. The Presentation Zen blog has some really great resources for lecturers who are intentional about how they present.
  • Lecturers rely a lot on student feedback and reaction. Even if they’re not actually saying anything, it makes a huge difference to at least see some nodding heads when you make eye contact. I’ve never thought much about students’ responsibilities in terms of giving something back to the lecturer. This comment made me think a bit about my own accountability when listening to others’ speak.
  • Use more “soft” breaks. Soft breaks are short breaks (2-3 minutes) where Jacqui presents students with “educationally useful” content that is still marginally relevant to them in order to keep them interested. In other words, the cognitive distance is not so close to the lecture content that it doesn’t count as a break, but not so far removed that students are distracted and find it difficult to get back into the topic when the break is over. The example she gave was giving students writing tips, which I thought was a great idea.
  • Encourage friendly competition between students or groups of students. Jacqui made it clear that aggressive competition and ranking students probably isn’t a great way to get them to engage but that friendly competition with low risk that wasn’t explicitly linked to module outcomes seemed to get them more motivated. This is something that we’re struggling with in our department…student motivation and engagement seems quite low. We’re trying to figure out ways to develop a community in our department and I think that this idea of friendly competition is worth exploring.

Thank you to the UCT Law Faculty for inviting to present some of my work. I appreciated the opportunity and also learned a lot from the experience.

Additional resources related to the post

Understanding vs knowing

Final exams vs. projects – nope, false dichotomy: a practical start to the blog year (by Grant Wiggins)

Students who know can:

  • Recall facts
  • Repeat what they’ve been told
  • Perform skills as practiced
  • Plug in missing information
  • Recognize or identify something that they’ve been shown before

Whereas students who understand can:

  • Justify a claim
  • Connect discrete facts on their own
  • Apply their learning in new contexts
  • Adapt to new circumstances, purposes or audiences
  • Criticize arguments made by others
  • Explain how and why something is the case

IF understanding is our aim, THEN the majority of the assessments (or the weighting of questions in one big assessment) must reflect one or more of the phrases above.

In the Applied Physiotherapy module that we teach using a case-based learning approach, we’re trying to structure our feedback to students in terms that help them to construct their work in ways that explicitly address the items listed above. We use Google Drive to give feedback to students as they develop their own notes, and try to ensure that the students are expressing their understanding by creating relationships between concepts.

One of the major challenges has been to shift mindsets (both students’ and facilitators’) away from the idea that knowing facts is the same as understanding. As much as we try to emphasise that one can know many facts and still not understand, it’s still clear that this distinction does not come easily to everyone. Both students and some colleagues believe that knowing as many facts as possible is the key to being a strong practitioner, even though the evidence shows that decontextualised knowledge is not helpful in practice situations.

The list above, describing what students understanding “looks like”, is helpful in getting our facilitators and students who struggle with the shift in thinking, to better grasp what we’re aiming for.

Using Google Translate for international projects

Google-Translate-Icon

In preparation for the FAIMER residential session in Brazil, the coordinators spent months sharing documentation and ideas, and discussing every detail that goes into planning something like this…and they’ve been doing it in Portuguese. Initially I thought that this would mean I’d have no idea what was going on until I got there, but then I remembered that Google Translate is integrated into most, if not all of Google’s products and thought I’d see what was possible to follow in the planning process.

Google Groups and Gmail have built in translation services, which mean that whenever a message gets posted in a language that’s different to your default, Google offers to translate the page. And not only that, it offers to translate it every time you get a new message. Now, the translation isn’t perfect and the service will help you to understand the general content and context of a message but is not always accurate. Some words are not translated and some look like gibberish (this is probably because of how Google does the translation). But, as I say, it’s close enough to be very useful.

So that’s fine for Gmail in the browser but I also use Thunderbird as an offline mail client, which doesn’t have built-in translation. Luckily it supports extensions and I managed to find one that uses Google’s translation API, which I use to translate my offline messages as well.

So far so good. But what about documents and spreadsheets? With almost every email that came through there was an attached Word document or spreadsheet. Using Translate in Google Docs was easy enough. After opening the Word document in Drive, click on the Tools menu item and choose “Translate document” in the dropdown.

Sheets was bit trickier, requiring me to dig around for a bit in the scripts menu. However, once I figured out the process, it was simple enough to do it every time I needed to translate a document. Note that these instructions will become obsolete when Google changes how Sheets work, and that this process is assuming that you have a local spreadsheet you want to translate.

  1. Go to www.drive.google.com
  2. Click on the red icon with the “up” arrow to upload the spreadsheet
  3. Open the spreadsheet in Google Drive
  4. Click on Tools -> Script Gallery, and enter “translate” in the search box
  5. Install the “Translate sheet – any to English” script
  6. Click on Tools -> Script Manager, and Run both options
  7. There will now be a new menu item called Script
  8. After uploading new documents, you can click on Script -> Translate, and it will convert the document into English

For all of Google’s translation services, it’s important to remember that it’s not perfect, and will take some time before it’s seamless. The translation sometimes read as if it’s been done word-for-word without taking grammar into account, which means that while you can figure out what is being discussed, the conversation doesn’t flow naturally.

Besides becoming more familiar with Google Translate, there were few other things that I learned from this experience:

  1. Not everyone speaks English. Now, I obviously knew this on a cognitive level but when everyone around me speaks my own language all the time, I don’t really think about it.
  2. As more and more people use Google’s translation and voice services, their API is going to keep getting better, until eventually real-time translation with a decent Internet connection will be commonplace. Soon enough, we’ll get to a point where language isn’t a barrier to learning and commerce the way it is now. You’ll speak and write your language, and I’ll receive the message in mine – the translation will happen in real time.
  3. Understanding language is different to understanding culture. Just because I can understand what you’re writing doesn’t mean I’ll understand how you’re thinking.

Finally, I’ve just agreed to supervise a student from Libya who will be doing his Masters thesis in physiotherapy in my department. I’m interested to see if integrating his workflow into Google’s services and apps will help us to work together. Stay tuned.