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Student organisation with Notely

It’s fast approaching time to get back to school or college for most pupils and teachers. That generally means rushing everything in the last few days that has been put off under the false illusion that there’s “Plenty of time.” Thankfully, I’ve managed to get everything done. However, I’m always hunting for ways to improve my organisation to ensure that tasks get finished on time, and everything is neat and accessible. Notely aims to make everything easier for students by providing numerous useful tools.

The interface of the scheduling tool was impressive

The interface of the scheduling tool was impressive

Notely packs so many smashing features into one web-application that it’s difficult to know where to begin. After registering and logging in, you’ll be presented with your dashboard. This’ll be useful in future to see quickly what tasks need doing and what events are coming up.  Rather than just work my way through the entire sidebar in this article, I’ll pick out the main features in an order which makes some sense and couple them with comments and the usual babble.

Right-ho, let’s start with the ‘Courses’ section. This is one of the must fundamental features – each lesson taken can be added here; doing so allows future task and other such items to be placed in their right category. It’s a simple process to creating new courses, and each has extra information assigned to it, such as teacher and classroom. For some reason it’s compulsory to add those, which makes it a bit awkward for me since it’s not yet confirmed what teachers I’ll have, let alone the room numbers. It also doesn’t account for the fact that it’s likely that some students will be in different rooms at different times – especially if they have more than one teacher for a subject. However, simply placing a dash or other symbol in the teacher name and room number box is enough to fool the form into thinking that you’ve entered the information. A more minor feature is the ability to add a colour to represent your course. Unfortunately, the choices were very limited, which meant that I couldn’t have the same colours as the folders for each subject. A minor issue, but I’m sad enough to want the colours to be standardised.

Once you’ve added the names of your lessons, you’ll be able to categorise other information into them. One of the most important of these is likely to be the ‘Notes’ feature, and judging by the name of the website, it’s designed to be the key feature. The tools for creating a new note are more than sufficient – you’re given a text area featuring a number of different tools to allow you to format the text, add links, insert images, and other such jazz. I did wonder why Notely’s notes feature would be used in place of a document, since other software is more suited to taking more strenuous notes. They would lack the integration with Notely’s other features, but I’d still rather create notes in software that features more advanced features and will store it on my hard-drive. PDFs and RTF documents can be imported to Notely, but the ability to import other formats such as .DOC would be a welcome addition.

I’ve been trying to work out the difference between ‘Tasks’ and ‘To-dos’, but I haven’t quite been able to fathom it out. They both appear to serve the same purpose, but ‘Tasks’ appear to be more focused upon outlining specific projects which need to be completed, whilst ‘To-dos’ appear to be designed for more minor task – things like ‘Buy book’  or ‘Find pen’. As with any organisational application, the plan behind these is to enable you to keep track of tasks which need to be done, and to ensure that you’re handing them in or completing them in time. Notely’s offering is good, but I don’t think the interface and ease-of-use compares to Soshiku’s. However, the tight integration with Notely’s other features may be the factor which wins you over. Like Soshiku, each to-do note can have a due-date applied, but Notely also allows a time to be added, which allows for a little bit of extra prioritisation.

Complementing the to-do feature is the ‘Calendar’ item. This shows when each task is due, and therefore allows you to see more clearly when work needs to be completed by. Additional items can also be added directly to the calendar. Therefore it can serve the dual purpose of keeping track of your work, as well as scheduling more enjoyable plans. Something which I thought was especially smashing was the ability to view the calendar in weekly or daily mode; this meant that each day had hourly intervals underneath, allowing the events to be seen clearly. Whilst it doesn’t quite compete with applications specifically focused upon the calendar, it is a very useful addition to the suite of features. A minor qualm was that the calendar didn’t show the name of the day when in weekly or daily mode – opting instead to show only the date.

The ‘Links’ section is fairly self-explanatory. Links to useful websites can be added. Each contains a title, URL, and an optional description. This is a simple feature, but may prove to be useful for quickly accessing useful but obscure webpages or online applications. However, it would be nice to be able to categorise the links into the aforementioned courses which were created. A similar feature is the ability to upload files. Unlike the links, these can be organised, which means you’re able to create folders which contain sub-folders and files, allowing you to keep track of anything you choose to place there.

Notely's calendar is useful for seeing when tasks are due or events are occurring

Notely's calendar is useful for seeing when tasks are due or events are occurring

Another duty which I usually do over the summer holidays is typing out my timetable in a more friendly format. This includes colour coding and a cleaner design than the plain black-and-white which the dull photocopier provides. Undertaking this arduous quest usually involves poring over a meticulously perfected table in Word, this time I could use Notely’s ‘Schedule’ tool to create the coming year’s timetable. The rows span from the ungodly hour of 7am right up to 8.30pm. Whilst this is a benefit in that even those with very strange schooling hours will be able to use the feature, it means that I end up with a large number of wasted spaces. I’d therefore like to be able to specify which days and timespans to include on the timetable. Despite this, the interface is really rather smashing. The subjects which were created on the ‘Courses’ page are ready to be dragged to their correct places on the timetable, and they’re also accompanied by the more inviting ‘Free time’ and ‘Lunch/dinner’.

With regard to learning rather than just organising, Notely also provides features which allow for the creating of quizzes and mind-maps. Both of them seem to work fine, but lack the shine and polish of other alternative web applications which are designed specifically for those purposes. Bubbl.us is a good alternative for creating mind-maps, but once again you’ll lose the compatibility with the rest of Notely’s smashing features by using an alternative website.

There are also a number other features which are well worth a look, but I’ve now babbled for quite long enough and will therefore wrap this article up. Notely has proven itself to be very useful and full of features which promise to help students organise their busy schedules. You can sign up at www.notely.net.

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Improve clipboard functionailty with 101 Clips

We’ve probably all done it – copied something useful that we needed to paste elsewhere, and then forgotten and copied something else. This’ll result in losing the first thing that you have copied, and unless you can find the original source again, it’s destined to float in the abyss forever. However, Windows clipboard is capable for holding more than one item at a time; you just need a bit of software to bring out the full potential. This exists in the form of 101 Clips.

101 Clips shows a preview of each clipped item when hovered over.

101 Clips shows a preview of each copied item when hovered over.

After installing, the first thing I noted was the simple and fairly dated interface. I soon discovered however, that it’s enough to get the job done that it’s intended for. There are a number of small rectangles, each of which can become filled with an item which is on your clipboard. It’ll place the most recent in the first space, and the others will get pushed backwards. It would be nice to be able to customise the number of rows and columns provided. A minor issue, but being able to alter this may be a useful addition.

101 Clips will reside in your system tray – down by the clock. It’ll then store up all the items that you copy without making a fuss. These copied items can then be seen by clicking the icon to open up the software. Hovering over one of the listed items will bring up a small preview window which shows the copied text, image, or file link. Clicking on the item will then place it back at the front of the clipboard, allowing you to paste it to another location. One limitation I found was that if you copy a file or shortcut, clicking it in 101 Clips won’t allow you to paste it into Windows explorer as you would expect. Instead, it saves the location of the file as text.

If you find that there are items on the clipboard that you no longer need, they can be right-clicked to delete them. Doing this will prevent the number of items getting cluttered, and clips should be easier to find. There are also a few options as to which buttons are displayed in the software, which can be accessed from the menus at the top of the window. Something to be aware of is that closing the window will close the software completely, including the system tray icon. If you want to keep using it without having the window on the screen, minimizing the window will zip it back into the tray, patiently waiting for you to call on it again.

Being the fool that I am, I shut my computer down before realising that I hadn’t taken a screenshot of the 101 Clips software showing the functionality. Duty-bound, I switched it back on expecting to have to begin my copying frenzy again, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it had remembered the copied items from before it was shut down. This meant that everything stored there could be clicked to allow me to paste it if I needed to; a helpful feature that could prove very useful if your PC crashes.

Whilst the software has a simple purpose and an uninviting interface, it’s incredibly useful and likely to leave you wondering how you survived without it. 101 Clips can be downloaded from http://101clips.com/freeclip.htm.

Look up definitions with WordWeb

Whilst there’s a plethora of dictionaries available online, software can still surpass them in terms of ease-of-use and the speed of access. WordWeb is a smashing little application which combines a dictionary, thesaurus, and more into one small application. It’s almost always faster than using a dictionary website, and includes additional functions which you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

WordWeb provides a plethora of features which make reference tasks simple

WordWeb provides a plethora of features which make reference tasks simple

During or just after the installation, you may be struck by something a bit queer. The license agreement includes a clause which states that you can use the software provided you don’t make more than four flights in a 12-month period. Obviously this is the developer’s way of trying to reduce carbon emissions and therefore save the poor little polar bears from supposed impending doom. I don’t take flights, and therefore am free to use this software as much as I like. It’s also quite quaint that you receive a message after a year asking you how many flights you’ve taken – it won’t let you continue to use it if you answer more than four, and will perhaps lecture you about how you’re murdering the environment.

Attempted diktats about how you travel aside, the software is useful and zippy. It loads very quickly and it’s easy to get started by searching a word in the text field. WordWeb will then quickly do some soul-searching to find the word you’re looking for and provide definitions. Below this are a few tabs which offer different features. The first of these is ‘Nearest’, which will take you to a list of words which are above and below it alphabetically, clicking one  of these will take you to its definition. Whilst this isn’t as obviously useful, it’s handy if you’re using alliteration in puns, or you just want to kill some time. ‘Synonyms’ is the second tab, and this lists words which mean the same thing. I’d like to see that improved, since there weren’t many suggested synonyms for each word. Thirdly we have the ‘Antonyms’ tab, which presents words which mean the opposite of the word you’ve looked up – just in case you’re feeling fickle.

There’s also the ability to carry over information from the Internet. After clicking ‘Web References’ you’ll be asked to confirm that you’re willing to download content from the Web. After this initial shuffling about, you additional features will be added: a Wikipedia article panel for the word, a Wictionary panel, and a WordWeb online panel. These all add additional information which can be useful to your in your research.

I think my only suggestion for improvement would be the ability to have different tabs for different words. This would help with multitasking or when checking the finer points of the definitions when choosing between two similar words. WordWeb can be downloaded from http://wordweb.info/free/ or download.com.

Manage photos with Google Picasa

Nowadays just about everyone has a digital camera. Whether you take the occasional fun snap with your mobile phone’s camera, or you’re a keen shutterbug with a top-of-the-range SLR which would make the paparazzi jealous, you could do with a good way of managing photos. Over a long period of time you’ll probably find that your photo files begin to build up in a chain of different folders. Whilst this system works, it’s certainly not the easiest to navigate, organise, and alter your images. Interestingly, Google Picasa is useful even if you don’t take photos yourself. It’s likely that you’ve been sent photos by friends and family; and you may be a habitual hoarder of interesting images from the Internet. Picasa isn’t limited to only photos – it will happily manage and edit any of the supported image file types. It’s got plenty of features, but it excels at organisation.

Picasa makes it easy to organise and view photos by browsing the folders or placing them into albums.

Picasa makes it easy to organise and view photos by browsing the folders or placing them into albums.

After installing Picasa and loading it up, it’ll either begin to automagically index your images, or it might prompt you and check what you want to index. Mine just goes scavenging around for any image files which exist on the hard drive. ‘Scavenging’ may be a misleading choice of word, however. It actually finds the files very quickly and shows them in their folders in the tidy sidebar. You can then scroll though these folders to see your images. This saves you navigating through different folders and their often confusing structures. It’ll also detect when any new images arrive and add them to its index. If you move or edit photos, it’ll notice that too and update itself. I was also impressed that it even saves screenshots – pressing the print screen button resulted in Picasa saving the screen capture. This could prove very useful if you need to take a number of shots, since it’ll bypass the usual gruelling process of pasting each shot into a picture editor and saving the file individually.

A feature which I really like is albums. Whilst you could (and probably do) organise your photos into folders which represent different events, places, or times, you may find that you’ve got a number of similar pictures in different folders. A recent example of this for me was the wedding I attended. I had photos from my camera’s memory card; photos from other people’s cameras; some I had downloaded from friends on Facebook; and a few folders containing images I used in the film I made of the day. Being able to save this mish-mash of images into one album made it much easier to find, view, and edit them in future. If you then want to keep a copy of your album or send it to a friend, you can have Picasa export the photos into a folder. It’s also worth noting that creating albums doesn’t affect the location of the photos – moving them into a Picasa album will not remove them from the original folder in which you saved them.

Importing photos was also a simple procedure. After popping a memory card into the slot it was just a matter of clicking the ‘Import’ button and telling Picasa where to look. It then automatically detected any duplicate photos so I wouldn’t end up with multiple copies of the same photos. If this was your intention, you can simply untick the ‘Exclude duplicates’ box, and then enjoy watching Picasa zip along as it copies the files to your PC and makes them nice and easy to access in future.

Editing a photo using Picasa's built-in tools is very simple

Editing a photo using Picasa's built-in tools is very simple

Of course Picasa will never match up to expensive software like Photoshop when it comes to editing your photos, but it works very well when it comes simple fixing and improvement. The red eye removal too was especially impressive; it automatically found the red eyes and turned them back to their usual, less demonic colours. If it can’t detect them alone, it’s a simple case of dragging the crosshairs to where the eyes are located. The other filters consist mainly of colour changes – things like shadows, brightness, and other effects. These fall under three editing tabs which become visible when a photo is double-clicked to view it larger. If you’re feeling even more creative you can create collages of chosen photos, folders, of albums. The collage I created of the wedding album looked very high-quality and would be well worth sending off to a friend or family member to briefly showcase your photographic skills or show them what a grand day they missed out on. Another smashing feature is the ability to create video slideshows of your photos. Music, titles, and captions can all be added to the stream of pictures before exporting the file in a video format that can be viewed in media players and potentially DVD players.

Yet another fantastic feature is the ability to upload your photos quickly and easily to Picasa Web Albums. Not content with providing photo software for you, Google also runs an online service where you can store your photos online to share with others. You just need to choose an album, folder, or image to sync to the web, set a couple of options, and then they’ll be safely stored on the Web. The privacy settings are simple but more than adequate – you can click the ‘settings’ button before syncing to choose who can see your album – everyone, those you give the link to, or allowed users who have a password. Picasa will then keep track of any changes that you make and keep the online photos updated as per your alterations. You an disable the auto-update of the online album if you wish by disabling the sync again. The photos uploaded can also be reordered or deleted by visiting your online albums page.

Having long avoided photo management software, I’m very impressed by Google’s offering, and therefore glad that I downloaded it and gave it a try. It’s got an intuitive interface, fantastic features, and it’s fully free. You can download it from picasa.google.com

Teacher’s Personal Information Manager

August 8, 2009 Leave a comment

This article is brought to you by our new author, Jennifer. If you’d like to contribute articles to Revnews, let us know here.

I am a teacher that enjoys being as organised as possible. I have a laptop on my desk find the Teacher’s Personal Information Manager (TPIM) invaluable. It provides weekly and daily planning sheets for each class you enter. It will also let you keep class lists with attendance register and grades. You can also make private notes about each student which could be incidents that need recording or just noting something smashing they did that lesson. There is a calendar feature which could be great for entering exam dates, parent teacher meetings, report deadlines, staff meetings, the list goes on.

a_one_week_plan

TPIM allows teachers to schedule their lessons in advance for quick access later

This will do pretty much everything you wish to do, if you enter your timetable and lesson timings then you can also choose to enable the feature that will pop up and remind you to issue the homework. Your students may not thank you but I’m sure the parents will.

I use the system to plan a term at a time but you can do it on a weekly or even daily basis as it suits. Then each morning I can print out a summary of my classes for each day. Your plans can either be a couple of sentences or detailed (starter, plenary, objectives, resources and all the timings involved). If you have to be out of school, either because of illness or on a training day, then this will produce a cover sheet, including class lists, seating plan, work to be done, homework etc. This can be done in a second rather than being at home ill and having to starting thinking what can be done. You can export your lesson plans for each class into a Word or Excel document very easily so you could print these or upload them to a class website. I know parents find them very good for making sure what has been set for homework or for a student to see what they’ve missed if they’ve been off school.

The product costs £40 (a one off fee) but the time saved and also the money saved on diaries etc more than makes up for this. However, a free trial which allows time for testing and making a decision about whether you will purchase the full version, is also available. I know all of us as teacher find time precious, and while this might take a little time to get used and set up to during the initial stages, future years are made simpler due to features software. I got it up and running in an afternoon but took longer to fully appreciate all it could do for me.

I really can’t recommend this product enough. The only limitation is the grade section which doesn’t really do as much as I’d like. If you are interested in a more comprehensive grades package then please read the upcoming review of Gradekeeper. TPIM is available from www.csfsoftware.co.uk/TPIM_info.htm.

Create music with TuneAroundStudio

I possess little to no musical talent – music lessons at school always left me stumped and longing for English or another subject where I could feel at home. However, this ineptitude doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of creating some utterly awful pieces of music on the PC if the opportunity arises. The opportunity did arise, and in the form of TuneAroundStudio. It’s a light-hearted application which can be used by amateurs (or more experienced fellows who like to show the rest of us up) to create tracks.

TuneAround uses a simple, accessible interface that is approachable to just about anyone

TuneAround uses a simple, accessible interface that is approachable to just about anyone

After downloading and installing the application will prompt you to log in. It’s mildly miffing that you can’t use the software without signing up for an account. This only use of an account appears to be if you’re planning on uploading your music to the TuneAround website, which if you’re as awful as I am, you won’t be. It’s apparently necessary since the software seems to save your data online rather than locally on your PC.

After signing up and logging in, you can then get down to business. You’ll be able to choose from a number of different pre-created tracks which fall into various categories varying from dance to classical. You can then load the pre-created items into your new creation, or start from scratch. I think the ability to start solely from scratch with a blank screen should be easier – it seems that you have to choose a pre-created track, but then opt not to import the music into it in order to start a blank creation. That struck me as little bit odd, but far from a catastrophe.

I was initially a little bit confused, but found that once I’d fiddled around for a few minutes, the basics were easy to pick up. Each instrument or noise which will play in your song is listed along the left. Clicking on one of those will open the interface where you can edit the current beats or add your own. You can right-click and drag to select areas to alter by right-clicking and selecting an area. You can then cut, copy, paste, or clear the area.  Adding your own beats is a simple case of scrolling through the choices of different sounds and dragging them to a blank square. These squares are coloured to represent different sounds. Since I’m completely clueless when it comes to music, I just pick fairly randomly – pretty colours draw the eye of feeble minds like mine. Another useful feature is the ‘Autochoice’ button. There’s one of these under each instrument used in the current track, and after highlighting an area by dragging the right mouse button you can click it to have the software decide what will sound good there. That kind of takes away the fun, but it’s good for making a starting point which you can then edit.

Additional instruments can also be added by clicking the large ‘+’ button at the bottom right of the window. You can also add a microphone recording to your tracks. Since I won’t and can’t sing, I decided to add a recording of me clicking my fingers next to the microphone. It was a failure. Therefore it’s rather smashing that it’s very easy to delete or mute tracks – I can simply mute the track of my fingers snapping and cringe as the rest of the instruments create a cacophony of noise.

The usual controls that you’d expect in a media player are located on the bottom right of the window – stuff like play, rewind, and fast-forward. You can also save your creation to edit at another time, or export it as an MP3 which can be played in other media players. The final option is to upload your song to the TuneAround website, allowing others to hear it and vote upon it. If you make a masterpiece, it may end up being featured on the front page.

Overall a great light-hearted application. It’s a lot of fun and a great filler when you’ve got time to kill. The best way to learn how to use it is probably to have a fiddle around with it and try to create a few songs. Hopefully you should have some fun even if you create something which is liable to break glass and cause cats to howl. TuneAroundStudio can be downloaded from www.tunearound.com.

Learn material with flashcards

August 3, 2009 1 comment

Love them or hate them, flashcards are useful for learning key vocabulary, concepts, or content. Whether you need to learn basic French or advanced political concepts, they’re helpful for cementing information in your mind. Writing them on bits of card or paper is all well and good, but like most things, there’s a computer equivalent which has the benefit of being easily accessible and editable, and far less likely to be lost or damaged. Both Anki and Quizlet provide online alternatives to risking damage to your dainty hands by using a pen and pair of scissors.

Customising some flashcards with Anki

Customising some flashcards with Anki

Anki is the downloadable software option, as opposed to Quizlet, which is housed online. Anki has a pretty large number of features, but this is also its downfall in some ways because it makes it confusing at times. It’s got a pretty advanced editing interface, but it’s not simple enough to create flashcards. Although the ability to add such things as sound or video clips, equations, and images to flashcards may prove very useful for learning or teaching concepts which go beyond text.

After creating a set of cards you can begin looking through them. Options appear after viewing each card which ask you how hard you found the card. Your answer to that will change how often the card comes back up. If you said you found it hard it will come back more often, whereas if you choose easy it will appear less often.

The software will also create graphs to show your progress and the amount of time you’ve spent on sets of cards. These seem awkward and clunky and of little use due to seeming like they’re going a bit over-the-top in trying to provide an in-depth analysis of your learning habits. Therefore the graphs looked out of place and confusing when I tried to get my feeble mind around them. There’s also an online section to Anki which allows you to view and edit your flashcards online, but this feature also seemed to be poorly implemented and awkward to use.

In addition the flashcard shown here, Quizlet also provides other ways to learn materials

In addition the flashcard shown here, Quizlet also provides other ways to learn materials

Quizlet, on the other hand, struck me as being a bit more smashing. Flashcards are simple and easy to use – text is displayed, followed by the answer when the button is clicked to reveal it. I think Quizlet should consider implement a similar system the one which Anki uses – being able to choose how often the card shows up would be  useful addition to prioritise your learning more efficiently. In addition to the basic flashcard feature that you’d expect, it’s also invents other ways for you to learn the items – including a test, and more interestingly, games. These are simple games which place the focus firmly upon the vocabulary rather than getting too caught up with creating masterpieces of Flash.

By far the most impressive feature of Quizlet is the ability to search through a plethora of sets of flashcards which other users have created. A search for just about anything will probably yield some cards which are related to the topic you want to study. When you create your own these are shared with other Quizlet users to help them with their learning. Whilst most public card sets can’t be edited by other people, you can use the ‘Reuse these terms’ feature to add the cards into your own deck which you can edit and add to. Another smashing little feature is the ability to export the cards as text. This could prove useful for printing out notes which you can read over when you’re doing revision or studying without the benefit of access to a computer.

Overall Quizlet seems like a much stronger contender, and I’d suggest it was a better option to Anki if you’re planning or learning using flashcards. You can access Quizlet from www.quizlet.com, and download Anki from www.ichi2.net/anki.