Academic writing workflow for geeks

Warning: This post is about writing not gaming, so you might want to bail here.

At this point in my geek-evolution, I have managed to use just about every widget and tool around. Most of them I’ve concluded are like having a baby rattle on a pram. Ultimately you’re occupied, even happy, but someone is pushing you from A to B.

Now when it comes to creating a workflow for writing, it’s actually quite hard if you’ve been bashing the rattle as long as I have. Which tools to choose, which to ditch. So many choices, so many things I tried and abandoned. Worse still, so many things I used in a basic way, avoiding filling out the details. Live in the pram means wasting crazy amounts of time procrastinating, experimenting and avoiding commitment. A decade of using this stuff requires some degree of conscious remedial effort to get out the pram and walk around again.

The key is to remember this is that writing is about getting from A to B. Yes it’s about grammar and conventions too, but for many students – it’s about A to B. In my case, I’ve got to write this thesis thing, which seems rather dense and complex, and there’s only one way these things get done efficiently.

Everyone is different, by my brain doesn’t work well by starting at A and going to B thinking, so Word is useless to me. Word is a drag on academic writing, and it usually trows up talk of ‘referencing’ using End Note. I hate End Note, it crashes, it’s spawned of DOS and a resource hog in my view. Some people love it. I figure the same people who like to line up for things in shops. I’ve used Diigo and Mendeley for years in serious (and successful) protest.

I like to write using two tools. IA Writer, a bare bones, clean typing machine and Scrivener, which is an organisational powerhouse for writing an non A to B methods. I won’t dwell on Scrivener, plenty have done it already. But as yet, Scrivener and Mendeley are not wired together, which is frustrating. However, the solution (for me) is Papers2 and Scrivener.

I had to bite the bullet, and face up to being the consequences of spending too much time in the pram. I exported all my Mendeley references and notes in BibTex format and imported them into Papers2. I then used the smart keywords gizmo in Papers2 to semi-organise what I had (some clean, some dirty) into rough themes. Next I made folders for related (sort of) papers, cleaning up my tags I went. For example, I’m working on a narrative analysis of New York Times reports about games as networks right now, so I have a folder and keyword tags for that. I can also import my Diigo online-articles into Papers2 using the same process. Yes it’s boring, but it has to be done if I’m ever to walk upright in the sunlight.

The biggest question I had was – how do I insert references as I write. First, let’s assume I’ve cleaned them up (as Mendeley often gets them wrong). In addition, Mendeley’s ‘cite’ function into Word is still slow and clunky. I have to use two programs at the same time – and always fight off Word’s insistence that it knows better about formatting. In my Master’s years, I found OpenOffice to be less irritating with Mendeley, but ultimately the high-lords of academia only speak [doc], so more conversions and ‘save-as’ inconsistencies occurred.

The solution for me has been to use Papers2 double ‘control’ tap cite as you write. As I write in Scrivener, I just double control tap to bring up a gizmo that then lets me insert a reference (as a sort of short code). An example is something like {Seale:2010ip} 

When I’m ready,I can compile it for a format I want (word, pdf, epub) and so on right out of Scrivener. For most people, writing ends up in the infamously over-bloated Word as I’ve said. Using Papers2, all you have to do is tell it Word to compile your exported Scrivener text, and all you’re wonderful references turn into a flat Word [doc]ument.

One key advantage for the writing process is that you can now organise and re-organise ‘pieces’ of writing to different ends (some for blogging, some for journals, chapters and so on) plus be able to compile for many formats. No more A to B writing, no more citation dramas and lost time.

Writing isn’t just about wrangling Word and EndNote. It’s all about workflow. Sync your documents to SkyDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and you have a complete system whereby you have a few ‘source of truth’ files, and an almost endless ‘lab’ for writing on multiple platforms and devices. 


5 Ways to create spectacular classrooms

I am a firm believer that asking teachers to do more with technology is the wrong approach to renewal, unless you are removing old habits, old methods and genuinely improving outcomes. In sessions I run for teachers, I believe that it’s more effective to change the culture and narrow the participation gap between autonomous and co-operative learning. By establishing a few simple norms – for spectacular results – especially in 1:1 technology situations. To achieve this, I’m proposing 3 tools, and  dropping some old approaches to get a performance gain.

1. Use reflective, self-reporting activities

The internet is a complex and diverse environment – simplify it for students. Use technologies that accurately reflect classroom activity and narrow the gap between what you want them to do and what they actually do – and save a heap of wasted or off task time. Diigo is the tool for this. Use it to model resources for students (lists); ask them to justify their own explorations (bookmark); and reflect on group learning (forums). Diigo is not a bookmarking tool! – It’s a learning management system and should be central to online learning.

2. Students must believe their choices and opinions matter

Probing questions in online spaces, allow teachers to discover student opinions; use a weekly question in your Diigo forum to ask them a probing question that allows them to express their feelings. Encourage participation by engaging in socio-centric conversation with students in the online space – as an aside from the rigor of the syllabus routine.

3. This week matters, because there’s another one following it.

Use TodaysMeet to create a simple question and answer page that expires after a week. Let them know that information is not persistent; but needs application to become knowledge. Encourage them to take turns in using it for passing notes and asking questions. Allow them to answer them and then at the end of the week, ask them to write a weekly journal entry – by asking a driving/probing question. Students are often poor a daily journal writing (you just get recounts) – make each week a process of leveling up to a Friday summit question. Base your assessments on summit questions.

4. Make authentic connections

Bring external voices to your classroom via technology, even if it as simple as using Google Chat, or finding a voice from YouTube. Locate an authentic dimension to problems. One great way to do this is to find your schools entry on Wikipedia – and make it better!

5. Build Vocabulary Bank

Each week a student is asked to find one word that relates to the week learning. Make one page in PBWorks, and ask them to add to it – alphabetically.

•    They have to give the meaning and how it relates to the discipline.

•    They should locate a web-reference of this being applied

These two actions provide continuous formative assessment of their ability to learn, comprehend and apply – digitally and conventionally.

What does this do for learning and engagement?

These 5 things, as a norm, repeated over a semester, promote socio-disciplinary learning. For the teacher it represents a very small change to promote the read write process in their learning and welcome students with a positive approach to learning with technology. Students will begin to select when and how best to use these spaces and  replace some of the tiresome activities of writing in Word, printing it out, collecting it or transferring it to flash memory or via email. Rather than think about ‘new’ ways, this appraoch blends existing, successful practices that allow technology to augment learning, keep students on task, be accountable, and interested in working online – though teacher facilitation and communication in those spaces. Doing this over and over, insisting and persisting; will create that norm – and may take several weeks to embed in student behaviour. Don’t fall into the trap that many another technology might work better – after all for the last decade, students have used little more than office automation and Google Search. Give them and yourself time to adjust and to be confident.

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Diigo – The power of collaborative thought

Shirky posted a very ‘oh my god’ post about the future of newspapers, weaving though it the problems faced by organisations when old ideas don’t work in new dimensions. This post becomes far more engaging for Diigo users, as there are numerous highlights though the text, with associated comments from people like Clary Burrell, who add the ‘educational’ dimension to the writing. At the time I read it, I think the blog post was up to about 900 comments with ping-backs, but the commentary though Diigo is something that I really value – when looking at the ‘power blogs’ like Shirky or Godin. Viewing the web with Internet Explorer and not Firefox is a little like listening to mono songs, verses surround sound these days. You miss the ‘spacial’ nature of the information.

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Diigo is a great ‘classroom’ tool – given the ability to sign on whole classes and the ability to not only bookmark and classify information, but to offer collaborative reflection. It is another tool that requires very little adaption of the standard network in schools, not does it pose a safety issue – and allows teachers to scaffold learning pathways. Teaching Diigo for pedagogy should be manditory professional learning in my view – and without doubt – any Web2.0 workshop needs to show just how powerful it can be when properly aligned in curriculum.

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Etherpad – Live Text Collaboration


One of the common comments people make in workshops about Google Docs is ‘what if two people are editing’. Well in reality that doesn’t happen that often, and even so, Google Docs informs you … but in a real time classroom, it can be kind of annoying. Etherpad, is fantastic for classroom collaboration. It has been in closed ‘beta’ for a while and has always looks good. The ‘real’ deal is even better. Being able to work in real time, with ‘live’ text significantly changes the interaction between students when collaborating. Not only can you ‘see’ who is doing what, but the digital text needs negotiation by the group. Knowledge is therefore being constructed in real time, using Etherpad at the centre of mutli-modal activities. Students could be using text books, visual resources or recording live events and dialogue. It bridged the gap between live blogging and chat, where time is the publishing criteria, to a live activity that allows students orgnise it. Best of all, there is nothing in ‘Etherpad’ that puts students at risk – it is a great tool, and will enable many classrooms to engage in ‘live’ activities – especially if the collaboration is over distance, cultures or disciplines

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What are those things?

picture-28 Someone asked me today if used Firefox. “Yes, I said”. After a pause they said “What are all those icons where the site address goes”. I thought for a moment and replied “waypoints”. After a slight nod of acceptance came “what do they do?”.

My waypointsDelicious, Diigo, Zotero (still scares me), zemanta (awesome tool), Cooliris, Google Notebook – are all things I use to recognise where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and learned. They do add to productivity – but I am so used to using them that I almost forget they are there and just how damn useful my browser is. Add ons come and go, but these have been with me for a while now. They make the whole process of telecommuting, working anywhere so easy that I wonder how people who have IE, Word and Email cope with the ebb and flow of communication that passes by them daily. It all starts and ends with meta data. The ability to leverage poweful tools, from simple icons, and create a set of way points that help me navigate the stuff that I’m interested in makes Firefox a weapon of mass construction (sic). Not only do I explore the metaverse, but the tools make it easy to drop pixel pins all over it.

virtual-live-borderDo I prefer to use online tools? No. I just want to use powerful tools. I can’t do any of this in Word and Outlook, so don’t – unless I have to. A decade ago, I had Outlook open all day, now I have to remember to check Groupwise. All this comes with me as I wander around with my iPhone (which as a phone is not that great). I no longer carry my laptop around with me. I’ve also noticed that students on campus also don’t. I half expected that students would all have laptops or netbooks – given the free wifi. But no, they prefer their phone and then drop into a ‘lab’ when they need to use a PC. I think at times, these things creep up on us. We don’t make big jumps at all, but there is a constant upgrade at work. It is impossible to keep up, to know all that is there, or all that is possible anymore – and I am not sure we need to. Powering your browser allows you to do more. Talking Web2.0 to someone on stock IE6 is difficult. Developing learning systems using browser power-ups is something I am beginning to think is like an exoskeleton. In the brief conversation today, it was impossible to put this into a simple answer other than “they make things better”.

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