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.


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.

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Using Google Translate for international projects


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
  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.

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Sharing? Collaboration? No thanks

Last week I took our third year students to see a demonstration of the management of a patient with spinal cord injury as part of the Movement Science module that I teach. I noticed that during the demonstration many of them were taking pretty comprehensive notes, and thought that this would be a great opportunity to use a collaborative writing platform to create something useful for everyone in the class.

I proposed the following to them the next day:

  • I’d set up a shared online workspace, either using a wiki or Google Docs and create the document structure so that they’d just have to fill in the spaces from their notes
  • We’d use class time so that this wouldn’t be regarded as extra work
  • I highlighted the benefits i.e. additions to their individual notes from other students, adding multimedia e.g. video and images to enhance understanding, linking out to external sources to strengthen the evidence base, error correction by the group and myself, and creating a potentially useful resource for anyone else in the world

Their response…no thanks. It wasn’t even up for discussion. I found out that they didn’t even planning on typing up their notes, even after I’d pointed out the digital notes are searchable, expandable and shareable. They told me that if they wanted to share with their friends then they’d just photocopy the notes.

These aren’t selfish students, and they’re not limited by access to technology. They just don’t see that sharing in this context has any value for them as individuals, and that’s where I think the problem lies. They think that sharing doesn’t benefit them in the context of their learning (or studying as they call it, which I think is a fundamental problem in itself). They told me that they are connected but only in their social lives. They regarded studying as that thing they do in the classroom, and that learning comes from studying.

I also got the sense that they believe in some way that this is a zero sum game, in the sense that the notes they have will give them some kind of competitive advantage over other students in the class, thereby increasing the odds that they’ll get a higher mark. What it is they’re competing for is unclear. I wonder if grading is somehow related? Grading sets up a system of ranking and competition, not of sharing and collaboration. From that point of view, sharing knowledge is only good if it doesn’t impact on my own position in the ranking system. If you get a higher mark than me, it pushes me down the list. If sharing is seen as a zero-sum game in which your success impacts negatively on my success, then sharing isn’t a good strategy.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed because I believe that sharing and collaboration has enormous potential for learning. What do I do…force them to share in the hope that they’ll see the light? Even if I design collaborative assignments that requires a sharing component, as long as they see it as work, I’m not sure that it’ll change their thinking.

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Introducing the OSPE format to physiotherapy practicals

Schematic for student movement through the stations

Last year at our planning meeting (every year we meet to review the year and to plan for the upcoming one) we committed to conducting all of our practicals from now on in the OSPE format (Objective Structured Practical Examination). This format has the advantages of having all students perform the same assessment tasks, as well as having each student assessed by every examiner. There are other advantages (and disadvantages) but there’s plenty of literature that discusses it more eloquently than I have time to do here.


We’ve been running all of our practical tests in the department using this format since we made the decision last year and after a few bumps, we’re starting to get it right. We now run two tracks in parallel, so that we can see twice the number of students in the same time. We were limited to 5 examiners in our first test. There were some other problems that it took a few tests to sort out:

  • We didn’t always choose appropriate techniques for the time limit at each station e.g. some techniques ended up being completed way sooner than the time allocated, and others were rushed
  • We allotted too much time to move between stations
  • We read the same instructions to every candidate, which wasted time
  • We only realised during the second OSPE that students who were still waiting to take the test still had their cellphones with them

We surveyed the students and staff following the first OSPE and are in the process of reviewing those responses. We knew that we’d get a few things wrong no matter how much we tried and so the survey was an attempt to highlight areas that we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of by ourselves.

We’re going to use Google Docs to collaboratively write up an article based on the student and staff responses, just to highlight the challenges of moving to and running an OSPE in a resource-constrained environment. I’ll follow up this post with the outcome of the article.

If you’ve been through the process of introducing the OSPE format into your assessments, I’d love to hear about the challenges and successes you had.


Posted to Diigo 07/06/2011

    • three forces at play when it comes to education and social media
    • first is a lack of force
    • second is the force of fear
    • third force is that of more and more educators who are embracing social media and advocating its use on- and off-campus – for student learning and for teacher professional development alike
    • a lot of potential with Google+: better student collaboration through Circles, opportunities for blended learning (a combination of offline and online instruction) with Hangouts, project research with Sparks, and easier school public relations with targeted photo-sharing, updates, and messaging
    • granular level of privacy afforded by Google+ that is the key to making this a successful tool for schools
    • while Twitter has been embraced by many educators – for both professional development and for back-channeling in the classroom – there’s still that “always public” element of Twitter that makes many nervous
    • sharing online isn’t simply about weighing privacy concerns; it’s also about sharing with the right people
    • many teachers are already talking about the possibility of not just face-to-face video conversation but the potential for integration of whiteboards, screen-sharing, Google Docs, and other collaborative tools
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  • @mpascoe Thanks for pointing that out, here’s the link #
  • Tech-savvy doctoral students increasingly look to open web technologies (prev tweet has broken link) #
  • @mpascoe wrt students and lecture capture, study was done by a company selling devices for lecture capture…have to wonder about results #
  • One year on « The Thesis Whisperer Interesting comments on what research students came looking for #
  • @sportsdoc_chris Thanks for the FF #
  • @simtho001 Who’s giving the course? What you covering? Would love to know what you thought of it when you’re done #
  • @romieh Great question. On looking further, it seems that the paper was released by a company specialising in lecture capture! #skeptical #
  • BioMed Central Blog : Exploiting the advances of multimedia technology in medical publishing #
  • BioMed Central Blog : Bringing open access to Africa: BioMed Central announces far-reaching program #
  • Cultivate your Personal Learning Network #
  • Who Really Owns Your Photos in Social Media? #
  • Students Rank Lecture Capture ‘Most Important’ Blended Learning Resource #
  • Tech-savvy doctoral students increasingly look to open web technologies #
  • Why Augmented Reality Is Poised To Change Marketing #
  • Periodic Table welcomes two new, ultraheavy elements, jury still out on the names #
  • United Nations Proclaims Internet Access a Human Right #
  • Daily Papert Many do not appreciate fully the ways in which digital media can augment intellectual productivity #
  • @RonaldArendse need something to do while waiting for kettle to boil 🙂 #
  • Pic du Midi de Bigorre cloudy Wikimedia Commons.jpg [POTD for June 08 from] #
  • Pic du Midi de Bigorre cloudy Wikimedia Commons.jpg [POTD for June 08 from] #
  • Scottish university to introduce comic studies degree #
  • Wikipedia Is “Making the Grade” With More & More Academics #
  • A few improvements to discussions in Google Docs #
  • UCT open educational resource wins 2011 Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence #
  • Introducing: Zotpress Pulling Zotero libraries into WordPress blogs #
  • Daily Papert Children’s thinking “has its own kind of order and its own kind of logic” #
  • Technology in Schools: Local fix or Global Transformation? : The Daily Papert #
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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-04-18