Teaching Electronic Toolkit

As the school year ends I like to think about what I do and how I can do it better. You need to have a system to stay on track to be able to get things done. The key is to set up when things are not busy. When it gets busy there usually isn’t time for quiet reflection and that is when you fall behind and just are trying to not all everything to fall apart. So this year it will be good to set things up and figure them out to be able to have tools that work well.

Here are some of the things that work well for me for staying organized and keeping track of what is happening and what has happened as I teach.


The OmniGroup makes great software for OS X and iOS that helps you stay organized and make things. At the core of my system for staying on track I use OmniFocus on three different devices - my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my iPad. Each version is slightly different and on each device it is used in a slightly different way.

The desktop is where I do my serious planning, so that’s where I usually set things up. With OmniFocus you set up things that you need to get done. It’s a supercharged todo list as every task lives in a context and a project. If you are a Getting Things Done person you’ll be familiar with these concepts as that’s the theoretical framework that the software grew out of. I keep track of most things that have to be completed. So each course is a project with all of the tasks inside there. It’s a system that works with other more personal stuff as well, so there are repeating tasks that I have such as Ride My Bike” or Meditate” or more mundane things like Take Out the Garbage”.

You can include notes or attach documents or links within each task. This is really handy if there is something that you need to read or review as you can have the documents that you need together wherever you are. That is very useful. All of the versions of OmniFocus also seamlessly sync together so if you add or change a task on your iPhone it will also show up on the desktop or iPad versions.

The iPhone version is great to check or have reminders pop up when something needs to be done. One great feature is that the context of a task can be location sensitive. So if there is something that can only be done in a particular place, you can choose to have a reminder pop up when you are in that place. If you need to buy something at a certain bookstore that will appear as a reminder when you are near there. Or if I have to scan something in the office, it will only appear as available when I am in the building. That can help you maintain focus quite well. The other role for the iPhone version is a way to capture things that need to be done. It’s quick to add things wherever I am and then flesh them out when I am sitting down later.


Another great tool from the Omni Group that has been a constant for me in planning is OmniOutliner. It’s an outlining tool that is simple, clear and powerful. It’s great for workplans as you can reorganize easily and set up complicated outlines and reveal or hide the details.

The columns give you all sorts of options with what you can do with different types of data. So while with some documents I’ll just have a list of tasks, I also will use it as a gradebook. The columns can include numbers and there can be summaries, so you can see a total for the marks. You can also have things like checkboxes or dropdowns that you create so you could have a list of things to choose from. I keep learning new things about it and finding new ways that it helps me out.

The most recent addition is the ability to sync the OS X and iPad versions. That is fantastic as it gets things all in one place and I’ll bring up the outline on my iPad to revise or review things. In the fall it will be very useful when grading things as sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere quiet with some work and the iPad and be able to grade in that way.

OmniOutliner is also really great at planning out a presentation or a class. You can flesh out topics with notes and links and then export the whole thing as a Keynote presentation. That can save time and keep you organized as the outline will match the presentation. You can also import presentations so you can go the other way and reverse engineer the structure of a presentation.


To keep track of little things that are written down the best place for me is with Simplenote. It’s a syncing service and application that deals with text files. It began as an iPhone app and there is also a web version of it. You create notes that are only text-based. No images or fancy formatting. This is great for jotting things down and for keeping ongoing notes for things that you need to stay updated on.


NVAlt is a text editor that is simple and clear. The notes can be stored and synced through Simplenote, so it’s the perfect way to be able to write things down and have them available on the computer, through my iPhone, or just on a web browser. It’s fast and simple and works well.

One of the great features is that the simple interface has a search field where you start to type and if something is found you can start editing it. If something isn’t found you will be able to start creating a new note with that name. When I need to type a few sentences or a few paragraphs it will start in NVAlt as it keeps me focussed on the words and not on the formatting. NVAlt is where I’ll write out assignments before I start to format them. It does what it needs to do and gets out of the way. If you are geekier it also gives you Markdown previews and it can use tags to keep your notes organized in whichever way you want to classify them.


TextExpander is a utility for OS X (and iOS) that allows you to create text snippets that can be expanded when you type a shortcut. If I type ddate” for example, it will expand into today’s date. If I type bbio” my short bio will expand. It’s great for keeping chunks of text that you use all the time. I have snippets for the class list for each class and for things like addresses for web sites, or my mailing address. It’s fast and simple and works where ever you type. It syncs with the iOS version, so that means when I am typing a note in Simplenote on my iPhone the expansions work as well.


I have used Evernote for a few years now to store PDFs and some photos. Most of my notes are stored in Simplenote, but sometimes it’s good to have a more visual way to store and organize things. So I’m upgrading to the Pro account with Evernote and will store more notes and documents there. Specifically handwritten notes, notes about classes, and pdfs of handouts and assignments. I bought one of the large Evernote Smart Notebooks to try out as I do take notes on paper as well. The dashed lines apparently make the text recognition work better and you take a photo of each page with your iPhone and it gets added to a notebook in Evernote. Usually I’ll have one notebook for the school year and this time taking notes and then photographing them and syncing them to Evernote will keep the paper and electronic versions together. On Evernote each course will have a notebook and all of the material related to that course will be stored there.


The newest and final app that I’m using is the powerful Drafts, which is designed to get you writing quickly on your iPhone (or iPad). It’s like a magic piece of paper that you can grab quickly and start writing. The whole point of Drafts is that it is the first place that you start writing and then you send the text somewhere else. You can tweet the text, create a new note in Simplenote or Byword, create an email, an appointment, an OmniFocus task, or even append or prepend the text to a note in Evernote. There are powerful actions for all sorts of things and you can customize them or create your own. It’s a great way to capture bits of information or inspiration and then send them where you need it to go.

These are some of the tools I use in planning and organizing my teaching life. It’s a system that evolves and changes as time goes by and it also creates a personal resource for reference so I can continue to learn and improve.

Up next Summer Biking A Credo for Teaching
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