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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.

Manage money with Buxfer

I like to think I’m rather thrifty with money, though most would say I’m more Scrooge-like than thrifty. Being able to keep track of my measly incomings and even measlier outgoings is a smashing prospect. In this time of economic instability, when interest earnings on saved money is next to nothing, you, like me, are probably looking to save as much money as possible and make every penny count. To do this, you might find it helpful to keep track of your incomings and expenditures. For managing your money, Buxfer is a good free option.

Budgets are displayed in a clear manner, showing information and visual graphs to show expenditure

Budgets are displayed in a clear manner, showing information and visual graphs to represent expenditure

After signing up for an account, the first choice you’ll need to make is whether you want Buxfer to integrate with an online bank account. Since I don’t use online banking, I didn’t need to go through the process of inputting bank details, and I therefore set about manually configuring Buxfer for my needs. It turned out that there wasn’t much to be done – at the most basic level I just needed to begin adding in incomings and outgoings to use the service and keep track of my money. An option which I quickly wanted to change was the currency. It is by default in US Dollars, but this is easily changed to one of a plethora of other currencies by using the settings page.

Budgets can also be set. These define maximum total spending for different areas – such as bills, maintenance, entertainment, and so on. A time-frame is then set – weekly, monthly, or yearly. The maximum amount of money that you are willing to spend in that area in the time-frame that you chose is then entered. You can also tick the ‘rollover’ checkbox, which means that if you don’t use the full budget that you set for the given time-frame, it will be added onto the next time-frame.

From that point onwards each transaction you add (either incoming money or outgoing money) can be tagged with one of the budgets you created. When you add an outgoing transaction and tag it with one of the categories, that amount will be deducted from the budget. The budget pages are detailed whilst being clear and easy to understand. Budgets for each area are represented by a line graph which shows the fall and rise of funds in different areas. Your total expenditure for the week, month, or year, is represented by a pie chart, which shows how large a chunk is spent in each section. There’s also a nice budget summary page, which shows how much remains in each area, the total remaining, and a visual summary of your spending.

My only suggestion would be the ability to track bank balances manually. This can be done by those who integrate Buxfer with their bank account, but those of us who don’t use online banking cannot see the total balance of our bank accounts rise and fall. Aside from that, it’s a very useful for managing your expenses and tracking your income. You can sign up at http://buxfer.com.

Organisation with Toodledo

August 5, 2009 1 comment

Thingymagigs to help us organise our busy lives are always welcome. I’ve recently looked at the likes of Chandler, which aims to help us organise ourselves, and a while ago Soshiku, which sets its sights upon organising school work for students and teachers. Toodledo is yet another organisational web application which aims to help you plan your day in the form of an advanced to-do list. My current reckoning is that it’s better than Chandler for overall organisation; in fact, it makes Chandler look positively naff. Besides, it’s worth using just for the fact that its name is a delicious pun.

Viewing and editing tasks from the Toodledo homepage is simple and quick

Viewing and editing tasks from the Toodledo homepage is simple and quick

I must admit that I became quite exasperated with Toodledo to start with. After signing up I began to feel rather dopey since I couldn’t find a button to allow me to add new tasks. Turns out that buttons like that are always located at the top right of the application. It’s a little green ‘+’ sign with text next to it which allows you to add new task, create new events, et cetera. Whilst that made me feel silly, I did think that the ‘New’ buttons should be placed more prominently to prevent numpties like me from getting fed up with looking for a way to add a task and poddling back off to our stone-age pen and paper methods of organising ourselves.

Folders can be created for each area that your to-do notes will be relating to. For me this consists of one for each subject I study, and a couple of others which are related to the home or spare time. After creating folders for each are you can begin creating new tasks. This is fairly self-explanatory – give it a title, a priority (ranges from low to high), due date, description, and some other such jazz if you like. You can then submit the task and it’ll be added to both the folder you placed it in and the front page. The front page is rather smashing in that it arranges the tasks by the priority you’ve set. Therefore, if you add a task which needs to be completed tomorrow you can set it as high priority and it will appear more prominently on the front page. Another smashing feature is that it’s very easy to edit the tasks directly on the front page simply by clicking in the relevant area; the text will magically become editable so you can change it quickly and easily.

There’s also a calendar which keeps track of when things are due and when they were completed. It’s easier see how long you’ve got left to complete a task by seeing it visually on a calendar than by reading the date in its info. If you don’t like the calendar included with Toodledo (it does seem a little bit simplistic and dated), you can also have the items imported onto an online Google calendar, allowing you to view and edit them there instead, as well as use them in conjunction with other events on your calendar.

To keep you motivated there’s also a ‘Goals’ section. It’s like an online replacement for the patronising careers adviser you may have encountered when you were at school. You can set long-term goals for yourself, for example you might list a career plan or a monetary goal. After creating your goals you than then choose which goals your tasks help you to work towards. When you’ve got tonnes of things you need to be doing, at least you can remember that finishing reading that long, dully book will help you work towards your goal of “Becoming a more educated person” or “Getting good exam results”.

An online notepad is also included. Like the calendar, this is pretty simplistic, but it might prove useful if you need to quickly jot (more accurately, type) something which you need to be able to access from another computer. Simply signing into your Toodledo account from another PC will allow you to see and edit the note.

You can sign up for Toodledo at www.toodledo.com. If you don’t like always visiting the website, there’s even a Firefox addon which will allow you to add tasks from your browser.

Brainstorm with Bubbl.us

May 26, 2009 1 comment
As of 27th May the folder problem mentioned here seems to have been fixed.

You’ve probably heard people twittering on about brainstorms, mind-maps, and spider-diagrams for some time. If you’re anything like me then you shun them, preferring to write out things instead. However, during my revision I’ve found myself using the online bubbl.us mind-mapping application. It’s proven itself to me, and I’m now using it as a slightly more interesting method to review and organise my notes as opposed to typing them out.

Bubbl.us can be used to break down large areas into smaller, easier to read chunks

Bubbl.us can be used to break down large areas into smaller, easier to read chunks

It’s currently available in two flavours – the current version and the new, far more spiffing, beta version. I’ve been using the beta version as I tried the current release previously and didn’t take much of a fancy to it. However, the new version which is currently under development adds a lot more polish, and makes the whole experience of using it far simpler, and at times, rather rewarding.

Each new mind-map starts with a word or phrase in the centre – an example from one of my own might be – ‘League of Nations failures’. Branches are then created around this central idea, which can then have further branches, and further, and so on. These floating text bubbles can be dragged around and moved to different areas. If you change your mind about the connection of one, you can drag it and hover over another bubble that you want it to connect to. Connecting lines can also be drawn between otherwise disconnected items to show a link between them. Colour schemes can also be added to different branches, making it easier to view and distinguish between different concepts. This is also supposed to improve the amount of information which your retain from it.

There are also options to export the brainstorm as an image – PDF functions would also be nice, and will hopefully be added in the future. I’ve found that the print function isn’t very useful at all; it tried to print certain sections on multiple pages, which isn’t really very useful at all. Printing from an exported JPEG was fine , if a little small with the larger brainstorms. The PNG, oddly, seemed to print at a slightly lower quality. I sometimes ended up screenshotting my brainstorms, resizing, then printing them. A bit of a hassle.

As is expected with betas, there are issues. Sometimes changing the colour of bubbles will change the font colour instead – but at least this is easily undone and retried. However, a real issue that’s been bothering me is more important. When placing brainstorms into virtual online  folders which can be created with the service, the file seems to get upset, and refuses to be opened from the directory. I instead had to open them from the splash page which appears when opening the application. This problem can be avoided by simply saving them as a list instead of creating folders and placing them within. Hopefully this will get fixed soon.

Whilst it’s a very good product, there is obvious scope for this service becoming much, much better. Currently, each brainstorm is only available to the person who created it. It would be a really nice touch to allow users to set their brainstorms as public, allowing others to view and edit it, creating their own improved copies. This would prove especially useful for students studying for exams – they would be able to browse a depository of brainstorms from other students; edit and improve them; and create their own for others to use.

If you’ve not tried brainstorming before, now is as good a time as any to give it a try. I suggest trying out the bubbl.us beta version to experience a really rather smashing web-app. If you’re not the daring, risk-taking type, and would rather sit quietly in an arm-chair with a nice cuppa, you could give the current version a go instead.

School organisation with Soshiku

March 8, 2009 2 comments

The number of web applications has exploded recently, seeing a number of really useful stuff running directly from your browser or Internet enabled phone, without the need to download or install anything. Whilst this is one of the less exciting, it’s a really simple, sleek and helpful web application which will help you organise your studies. Soshiku is, in a word, fantastic.

If you’re like me, you get so much homework you can’t keep track. I’d tried keeping a log in various ways, such as using

Soshiku makes organising your schoolwork a snap - no more excuses!

Soshiku makes organising your schoolwork a snap - no more excuses!

Excel or Onenote, even the hated paper, but none of them compare to the features and simple interface of Soshiku. The registration process is incredibly simple and easy, only requiring three details from you: name, username and email address. After that, you can log in and set about creating a snazzy space to organise your school work.

You can add sections for each of your subjects, or if you’re only studying one or two subjects, you could use that feature to add different modules or segments for your course. You can then add assignments; these would likely consist of homework, coursework, reading, revision, etc. Define a title for it, a due date, add a few notes and you’re finished. You can even break down assignments into individual task lists to make it clear for yourself.

Soshiku will keep track of when your assignments are due by putting them on the homepage under headings like ‘due tomorrow’, ‘due this week’ and the dreaded ‘overdue’. This allows you to prioritize at a glance. Clicking on an assignment title will take you to the details you added earlier, allowing you to view and edit them. Each subject you add also gets its own page, where your current and past assignments are listed.

I don’t know about you, but I hate having to work on projects with other people; I’m a control freak, but occasionally I have to. Soshiku helps me to get through this traumatic experience by allowing me to set projects as being available either publicly or to selected Soshiku friends, making it easy to collaborate with them. Ican also utilize the feature which lets me upload documents, sharing them with my workmate so he can make changes and then upload it again.

There’s no need to be at your computer either – just set Soshiku up with your mobile and you can receive assignment reminders whilst you’re plodding around town or hiding from your masses of work in a bar. You can even add new assignments from your mobile via a text message! It’s really simple to use after having a fiddle around and getting aquainted with the features. I’m sure you’ll love it, so sign up now at www.soshiku.com! If you find yourself confused, have a read of the simple help pages.