academic software productivity toolsI’ve been working as a lecturer for over 14 years and have tried a large number of software tools (desktop, mobile and browser-based) to help manage my teaching and writing workload. Over that time I’ve seen the technology landscape change with mobile and cloud solutions coming to the fore. So after many hundreds of hours of experimenting here is what I am currently using.

Calendar – Like many large institutions, my university uses Outlook as its email and calendaring app. However, as an Android owner and long-time Gmail user for personal email I have stuck to Google Calendar as my primary organising tool. This is partly because it syncs so effortlessly across devices and has never crashed in the 10 or so years I’ve been using it but also because I don’t like to put personal activities on my work Outlook calendar. I also like the integrations it has with third party “to do list” apps.

Task Manager – I’ve tried at least 10 of these over the last 20 years, starting with the Palm Pilot software in the late 1990s. Until about 6 months ago, I had been using ToDoIst and really liked the way it worked across many devices and the web. However, I recently switched to Trello for several reasons. I particularly like its interface and the ability to easily create and move around its boards, lists and cards. It feels a more intuitive way to visualise projects and tasks than more traditional list organisers. It works very well across apps on iOS and Android as well as web browsers. Finally, the free version seems to have all the functionality I need including the ability to generate cards (tasks) by forwarding emails to the unique email address it provides. This functionality in ToDoIst and other tasks managers often requires a paid subscription. I have no problem paying for services I find useful but if there is a free, equally functional, alternative that does the job then I’ll go for that.

Data Gathering – I’m not quite sure how to describe this category of software but I’ve been a long-time user of Evernote as a tool to store notes and ideas. I know it is often criticized for being a bit clunky and I’m sure I don’t use all its functionality but as a place to keep track of ideas and plans it does the job for me. Being able to forward emails to it, create notebooks for specific modules I teach and books and papers I am writing means I don’t worry about losing useful materials. I pay for the Plus subscription (£29.99 a year) which means it will work on all my devices and allows me to store more than enough attachments and files. I also like having the desktop software which syncs well and means that, even if their servers go up in smoke, I will always have a copy on my work and home machines. I find it most useful at the end of a semester when I make notes on how I will change the teaching next semester and also use it store useful articles ( its web clipping extension for browsers makes this easy) I find as I read online news and trade publications.

File Storage – perhaps not surprising that I use Google Drive to sync my files across work and home machines. I pay about £15 a year to get 100 GB of storage which is well worth it so I know I will be able to access my files from anywhere, even my Android phone and iPad. I think there have only been a couple of occasions in the last few years when the sync has not worked perfectly. Although this was annoying at the time, it is better than juggling memory sticks or always carrying the same laptop around wherever you go.

Reference Manager – I’ve tried EndNote and Mendeley but was never very happy with them for various reasons. It may have been my fault for not spending enough time figuring them out but I always seemed to go back to creating bibliographies and reference lists manually. Thankfully, that changed several years ago when I discovered Zotero. I like Zotero because it has solid desktop software, an excellent browser plugin, stores PDFs, syncs across multiple devices and also has a web interface, and, finally, has a great plugin for Word. While I use Evernote to store work-related news articles for my teaching, I use Zotero as my primary repository for any academic materials relevant to my research and writing. Being able to tag these references and attached PDF files using a structured set of tags I have created has saved me countless hours over the last 3 years. Adding references from Google Scholar with the click of a button on the browser toolbar has also saved time – if there is a freely available PDF of the paper available via Google Scholar it will also attach that to the record automatically. Finally, the Word plugin has worked flawlessly for me and instantly created bibliographies in a range of formats. The Zotero software is free and they also give you 100MB of free storage to store files on their server. I went over that limit a while ago and now pay $20 a year for 1GB of space. There are other pricing options for more storage.

Screen capture – I prefer to use images on my lecture slides rather than lists of bullet points or paragraphs of text. I find the images provide a prompt for me to talk more naturally about the subject rather than reading text off a slide (lecture slides will be the topic of another post). I’ve been using Snagit as the tool for this for the last decade or so and like its simplicity and the ability to quickly edit images before putting them onto a slide. It also does a good job of video capture. I’ve used it when I’ve needed to post a video of a lecture onto YouTube for students. You can easily set it to capture a video of what is going on within the computer desktop and add a real-time narration over the top. This works well with PowerPoint and there is the ability to upload the captured video direct to your YouTube account. At £23 for an academic licence I think Snagit is good value.

Well those are the key tools I use. As and when this changes, I’ll update this post.

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