Why the Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool

I own a 15″ MacBook Pro, an 11″ MacBook Air, an iPad, an iPad Mini, an iPhone, and an iMac. Perhaps rather surprisingly, my new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool. Here’s why…

Form Factor and Build Quality

I really enjoyed my Surface RT and Surface Pro 2, but the Pro 3 is in a whole other class. While in both prior instances the build quality was excellent, the Pro 3 feels just right. Its 12 inch, 4:3 screen is perfect for reading PDFs and other documents. While the prior Surface models felt a little cramped and too wide-screen for my liking, this tablet really does work like a laptop (with a much better detachable keyboard than the prior versions as well). The screen is amazing and responsive. It’s also weirdly light. I was carrying it in a messenger bag the other day and I thought I had left it on my desk. I literally thought the bag was empty. It actually makes my 11″ MacBook Air feel a little heavy. And did I mention how perfect the screen is for reading? Hands down, this is the right form factor for my day-to-day work.

Surface Pro 3

Stylus and Handwriting

I’m not sure what Microsoft has done with the stylus experience, but it is almost as natural as writing on paper. I didn’t find this to be true with the Surface Pro 2’s Wacom stylus. The new NTRIG device is fantastic. Add to that the push button to launch OneNote (either the modern UI app or the full desktop version) and the note-taking experience is fantastic. Compared with the quality of capacitive stylii available for most other touchscreen devices, the stylus and handwriting experience on the SP3 is in a class all by itself. And for someone who prefers to take handwritten notes at meetings as well as in marking up PDF documents with circles, squiggles and notes, it is a godsend. Whether I’m using the PDF annotation tools built into OneNote or PDF Touch, this feature alone makes the SP3 worth the price of admission to me.

Microsoft Software

In terms of productivity, having full versions of Office available on your laptop/tablet combo is critical. I chuckle when I think back to how hard I tried to make the iPad a real productivity device. With the SP3, it’s completely seamless. I realize that Windows 8 gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. I honestly don’t get it. I actually strongly prefer the 8.1 UI to both Mac OS and iOS. I think that most operations are more intuitive and more flexible from the user’s perspective. Add to that the fact that the one operating system supports both full Windows desktop apps and the modern UI apps available in the Microsoft Store, you have a lot of great flexibility. Now, if we could just get some more apps in the Store, I’d be a really happy camper.

All in all, I think Microsoft nailed it with the Surface Pro 3. I think that the more users see this device in stores, conference rooms or classrooms, more folks may find that this may be their favorite digital device too.

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 3

This semester, I’m collaborating with colleagues at another institution to design and implement a hybrid course with four sections of students across two universities. If you’ve missed the first two installments in the series, in the first post, I overview the course purpose and structure. In the second, I discussed the opportunities and challenges with implementing an online community of practice. We’re now a few weeks into the semester, and things seem to be going well so far. While it has been time consuming to design the structure for the course, it seems to be coming together. One recurring realization I’ve had over the last few weeks – tools matter.

We’re using BlackBoard as the primary learning management system (LMS) for the collaboration. Specifically, we’re making use of the discussion fora, pages to host rich media cases, the essay testing features for reader response items, and the online grading tool. I’m a relatively experienced BlackBoard user – although in the past my use was limited primarily to the discussion board and gradebook, including the wonderful rubric tool. What’s been new to me this semester is the content hosting (in the form of creating pages with embedded text, images, and video clips) and the test creation tool. I recognize that these are new to me, but I’ve rarely been as frustrated as when using these two functions in BlackBoard. This frustration is despite the wonderful support (technical and pedagogical) from our helpful IT staff. Rather than structuring this post as a “BlackBoard bash,” I want to reflect for a moment on the importance of selecting the right tool to support any kind of technology-enhanced teaching.

Any digital tool has it’s own affordances and constraints. Every tool does some things really well (affordances) and just gets in the way at other times (constraints). My prior use of BlackBoard (primarily discussions and the grade center) has focused primarily on the affordances of the LMS. This has worked well for me and my students in the past. In going deeper with the tool this semester I’ve run (repeatedly) into the constraints. I can’t tell you how frustrating something simple like embedding a YouTube video on a page has been. I keep lamenting how easy it would be to do the same task in another tool – like wikispaces. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if there were an easy work-around, but even with significant support, some of the limitations have been a major source of frustration.

In the end, I think we’ve bent BlackBoard to our will and it will (for the most part) serve our needs. This experience, however, has underscored the point for me how important choosing the right tool is for the best possible experience. Were I to undertake a similar course in the future, I would look long and hard at the different LMS options (I’m looking at you, Canvas). I will make sure that what I want to do (at least the major functions of the course) are not only possible, but hopefully pleasant to use. Because, in a course like this, you find yourself spending a good deal of time in the LMS. For a hybrid or online teaching experience to be productive and rewarding, you have to enjoy using the tools.

Any advice on alternatives for this kind of experience? I’m eager to explore other options.,

Online Storage and Access

With all the digital content in our lives (documents, images, presentations, pdf files, etc.), it’s critical to develop a robust storage solution that allows you to access what you need, when you need it, from where you need it. In this quick post, I’ll share two online file storage and access solutions that will literally make your life better – in a geeky sort of way.

Option 1 – Dropbox

I started using Dropbox probably 3-4 years ago with the free 2GB storage account. At first, I really only used the Web interface that allows you to upload documents into folders you create through the Web site. Once uploaded, you can access your files in Dropbox from any Web browser or through apps on your phone or tablet. Stop there, and this is already pretty amazing. 2 gigabytes of free storage that you can access from anywhere. Add to that, though, the ability to share a folder or single file with anyone via an email address or link, and you’re really cookin’ with gas. I’ve saved the best for last, though… Install the desktop client, and Dropbox creates a local folder on your computer’s hard drive. From this point on, any time that you save a file into this folder it is uploaded to your online file storage automatically in the background. Access and change a file on your smartphone? It’s automatically uploaded to your online storage and downloaded to any computer with the client installed. I literally have Dropbox installed on probably four computers or tablets and the service magically keeps the files synced across all devices. Really amazing. Seriously.

Option 2 – SkyDrive

Just when I thought nothing could trump my love for Dropbox, I discovered Microsoft’s SkyDrive through my work on the Technology Enriched Instruction project. SkyDrive does everything exactly like Dropbox, except it includes 7 GB of free storage (both services offer multiple upgrade options to get more storage space). This just where SkyDrive gets warmed up, though. The huge added benefit of SkyDrive is the built-in, free Web apps that allows you to work with your files via any Web browser on a computer or tablet. These Web apps are essentially slimmed down versions of all the Office applications. So, if you save a Word document in your SkyDrive folder, you can access the file through the Web browser, then click on the Edit tab and you can edit the file in your Word browser or, if installed, on your desktop application. Either way, as soon as you save changes to the document, it’s automatically uploaded to your online storage space (and all your computers or other devices with the desktop application installed). There are free Web apps for Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, my personal favorite notetaking utility. It really is an incredible tool… for free. 

I’m sure there are other options available, but these are two outstanding, free ways to store and access files online from anywhere. If you don’t already use one of these services, what are you waiting for? Get to it.

Diving into Hybrid Teaching

At the College of William & Mary, the primary part of my teaching load is working with undergraduate and Masters students in our teacher preparation program to help them to effectively integrate technology in their teaching. One of the capstone projects in the course is to challenge them to design a technology-integrated learning experience that they can use in their student teaching next semester. I introduce them to a flexible planning approach that I developed with my colleague, Judi Harris, called the learning activity types (LAT) approach. For novice teachers like my students, this is an involved process that typically spans three class meetings. In the past, I’d facilitated this process in class, using a variety of whole group and small group activities. For the first time this year, we designed an online module to replace this in-class experience. In a series of posts, I want to explore this shift to a hybrid model that focuses on three primary areas: my experience as an instructor in this new mode of teaching, benefits for and limitations to the learning process for the students, and learning outcomes for the students. In this first post, I’ll briefly over the process and module and share my insights as the instructor.

I used Blendspace to host the online learning module which spanned three weeks. During this time, we did not meet face-to-face for any portion of the work. Students worked through the module asynchronously with periodic checkpoints and assignments that they were to complete either individually or in small groups that I had created for them. They shared their work along the way through a BlackBoard discussion forum, Google Hangouts, and a commenting feature in Blendspace. In the end, students completed their instructional plans and turned them in to me through group blogs, which are publicly available.

This was a new experience for me as an instructor. I’ve done a number of online experiences for students to complete in lieu of meeting for class. I’d never done a multi-week experience that spanned such a long time, however. Moreover, this module guided them in the process of creating the key assignment for the course. So, in both these ways, this was a bit of a risk for me.

It certainly took some adjusting my time and work during these three weeks. Of course, I completed the vast majority of the planning for the experience in advance. My primary role during the three weeks was to facilitate discussion, provide feedback, and occasionally crack the whip when students fell behind in the process. This meant that I spent a considerable amount of time online – and particularly in BlackBoard. I really value and enjoy the face-to-face interactions with students, so this was a shift. I always felt a little bit tethered to my computer as well – particularly during a few of the more challenging phases. So, while I wasn’t meeting with the students during the scheduled class time, I’ll bet that I spent more time responding to their posts than I would have in class.

While the time spent in BlackBoard was not my favorite, I quickly saw real benefits for doing this experience online. First, students from different sections of the course were able to work together. Perhaps more importantly, I think the increased accountability of students posting their work on the discussion board encouraged them to participate more fully in the work than if they’d done so in the form of small group discussion in class. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that students’ thinking was visible in this way allowed me to answer questions and correct misconceptions or misunderstandings early in the process. Consequently, from my vantage point, students understood and engaged in the planning process to a greater degree than students in prior years. In my mind these benefits far outweigh the bit of discomfort I experienced in facilitating the work online.

All in all, things went well. With the help of my students, I’ve identified a few areas that could be ironed out. There was some confusion about when certain steps were to be completed. In some cases, members of the groups worked at different rates, making the discussions together difficult. I incorporated a few too many tools (Blendspace, BlackBoard, Google Hangout, group blogs) – both for me to stay on top of and for the students to navigate. Fortunately, these are all manageable fixes that should be fairly easy to implement the next time around.

What’s not clear to me, yet, is exactly how the students worked through the process. In the next post, I’ll explore this aspect of the work. I’m cautiously optimistic about the results, but I’ll have to go to the data.

Paper vs. Digital

When considering how to be the most productive, digital vs. paper is a key decision. We have lists to make and review, ideas to sketch out, notes to take, and information to keep track of – all of which can be done through digital, paper, or some combination of means. This is something I’ve continued to struggle with over the years, but I feel like I’ve finally hit on what works for me.

First, it’s important to point out that there advantages and disadvantages for choosing one approach over the other. Paper equals simplicity. Nothing is quicker or less obtrusive than jotting down a quick note in a notebook.  You can select from a range of different size notebooks, writing tools, and products. Paper is great for quickly capturing ideas, sketching, and processing information in a number of ways. This format also has a number of limitations. When you have a number of different projects and meetings, it can be very difficult to keep things organized. It’s also very tedious trying to find a particular note among a number of different notebooks, pages, and sections. 

 

 

You can also use a range of digital tools to capture and process ideas. From robust, full-featured note-taking and data processing/organization applications like OneNote and Evernote that work on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, IOS, Android) to more single purpose tools like OmniOutliner, Padlet, or MindMeister, one can easily find a digital processing tool to fit a particular need. Digital tools provide a number of advantages. First, it can be easy to lose a notebook. I know I’ve lost several. When this happens, you are completely out of luck. With digital tools, they are often automatically backed up to the cloud. So, not only can you recover them, you can access many of them from any Internet-connected device. Searching for specific notes or information is also much easier with digital capture tools. You can incorporate any type of digital content and also share your ideas much more easily than with paper.

 

 

The trick, I think, is to find the right balance for you between the “naturalness” of pen and paper with the utility of digital tools. After much searching, I believe I’ve found what works for me. For quick notes (e.g., when someone shares a Web address with me over lunch, I jot it down in my David Allen Notetaker Wallet) or to plan out specific tasks for a day (see the post on the Emergent Task Planner) I prefer paper. This is the quickest, and least obtrusive way for me to capture this info. For all my note-taking, I’ve migrated to OneNote. This is the easiest way for me to gather everything in one place, access it on all my devices, and easily search across all my notebooks. For a discussion of how I use OneNote, check this post. It’s not a flawless or totally consistent system, but it seems to help me get things done.

This is what’s working for me. It may not work for you in the same way. I think the key is to choose deliberately, based on the tool’s affordances and constraints. What are the key tools in your workflow in managing all the stuff in your daily life?

 

Digital Notetaking with OneNote

For the last two years, I’ve been working on the advisory board for the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project. The goal of the project is to help university faculty find ways to integrate technology in meaningful ways to support student learning and help their students develop 21st century skills. It’s been a great experience for me and challenged me to more clearly think through how and why I use technology in my own teaching and scholarly pursuits. I have long been a proponent of digital notetaking tools. The ability to capture and organize ideas and access them on all my devices has provided a huge boost to my productivity and organization. For years I’ve been a happy Evernote user. It has been a great tool, and I’ve enjoyed using it. In the TEI project, however, we’ve been exploring some of Microsoft’s tools for education and I ran across OneNote. In many ways, OneNote has a lot in common with Evernote. I’d heard of it, of course, but because I’ve been primarily a Mac user (there is currently no desktop app for Mac OS), I hadn’t explored it in any depth.

In building this tool into our TEI workshops, I’ve begun to understand some distinct advantages that OneNote provides – particularly with a touch-enabled Windows device, like the Microsoft Surface. There are three primary features of OneNote that have led me to convert 5 years with of Evernote notes into my OneNote notebooks. I’ll touch briefly on each of these features below coupled with some quick screencast videos of me demonstrating how they work. Even if you’re a Mac user, you may want to consider these features – all of which are available for free to Mac users through Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service.

The Metaphor

In Evernote, the primary metaphor is what they call an “everything bucket.” Essentially, you can add notes, documents, Web pages, etc. into your account. You can then add tags to describe the contents of the items. One can then search using tags or with keywords. More recently, they’ve added the ability to create collections or notebooks of related content.

In OneNote, the whole application is designed around the metaphor of three year binder notebooks. In each notebook, you can create tabbed sections with any number of pages within each section. This type of metaphor just really appeals to me and connects with the way I think about organizing my life. Watch the video below for an overview.

OneNote – Overview of the App

Embedding Media and Web Materials

This feature set applies to both Evernote and OneNote. In either service you can embed any type of digital media into your notebooks. They also both offer a button that you can add in your Web browser to clip Web content right into your notebooks. This video will demonstrate how to add different files and Web content into your notebook.

Embedding Media and Web Clippings into OneNote

Handwriting

The killer feature of OneNote for me is the appeal to add handwritten notes and diagrams in your notes (this of course requires a touch enabled tablet or laptop). You can add handwritten text into a note and just leave it at that. You can also convert handwritten text to typed text. You can also use a combination of typed and handwritten notes. For me, this is what really encouraged me to make the move to OneNote as my notetaking app of choice. In this video, I demonstrating some of these features.

Handwriting and OneNote

There are oodles of notetaking apps available for both Windows and Mac, as well as mobile devices. OneNote has been a wonderful addition to my productivity arsenal. The key, I think, is to find the tool that best resonates with how and where you like to work.

Task Management Software

One critical aspect of staying productive for me is managing my tasks. Like you I would suspect, I have a number of different projects on my plate at one time. It can be very difficult to keep moving them all forward without a system to keep track of where you are and where you want to go. For me, a good task management app is critical to help me to keep all the plates spinning – and especially to keep them from crashing to the floor. 

The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology developed by David Allen has really helped me to keep myself organized over the years. One of the key aspects of this approach is to develop a trusted system to organize and track all there is to do. One of the first and best apps available to implement the GTD system was Omnifocus. I’ve used Omnifocus for years to create projects, tasks, start dates, end dates and to develop systems for weekly and monthly reviews. I never quite felt, though, that I had my arms totally around the capabilities of Omnifocus. I was always aware of the fact that I was only scratching the surface of it’s capabilities. I eventually ran into two limitations that led me to explore other alternatives, however. First, it is only available on Mac and IOS. Second, there is no Web interface to access your data. As I have grown more fond of my Surface and increasingly work at a number of different computers, these limitations have really hamstrung me. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed using Omnifocus, I needed a new tool.

There are a number of different tools, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, available for productivity nerds. I really like the collaborative capabilities of Asana, but for whatever reason the metaphor and user interface didn’t click with me. I like the look of Remember the Milk, but it’s just too limited for what I need in a system. I really thought I’d found a winner with Wunderlist, and even paid for the premium service, but the workflow of adding and working with tasks just didn’t work for me. Finally I found Todoist, and I couldn’t be happier.

Todoist is a cross-platform app that includes a Web interface and several different native applications. The data syncs seamlessly across all my devices for a totally seamless experience. New users can sign up for a free account that is probably all that 90% of users will need. I chose to upgrade to the Premium service for $29 a year to add some key functionality for me. Honestly, even if I didn’t need this functionality, I probably would’ve upgraded anyway, just to support the development of this great service.

 

I’ve set up Todoist with a number of different projects along with their attendant tasks. I’m able to focus on just those tasks I’ve assigned to be due today, or I can look at 7 days at a time. I love that on the app icon on my iPhone it includes a badge with the number of items due today. It’s great to see at a glance how much more I have on my plate on a given day. It includes a number of other features that I don’t use yet, but may explore as I become more comfortable with my system. For example, you can add labels to tasks. One thing I’ve been considering using this for is when I’ve delegated a task to someone else. If I add their name as a tag on a particular task, then I can just view a particular tag to see what that particular person owes me. You can also add different priorities to tasks as well. 

I’m sure I’ll continue to refine my workflow and the way I use Todoist to manage my projects and tasks, but it’s working great for me right now. I highly recommend this rock-solid service. What tools do you use to help you manage all that you have on your to do list?