EndNote, Mendeley and old school software design

Ever since yesterday I’ve been evangelising to anyone who will stand still for long enough about this, so you’re going to hear about it here, too. The topic? Referencing.

Anyone who has ever had to do any sort of research knows that referencing is tedious and horrible. And for years, a tool has existed to make this task even more tedious and horrible – EndNote. I know some people think it’s the bees’ knees (hi @gsyoung..!), but most people I know would gladly see it die a slow and painful death given any sort of alternative. I know people who have referenced entire PhD theses manually just to avoid using EndNote.

The issues I have with EndNote is that it’s closed, its UI is badly designed, it doesn’t play well with others and you really have to fudge to do any kind of cloud syncing. The web interface is not brilliant either. It offends my sense of efficiency no end. But it still seems to be the thing everyone uses.

More recently, Zotero has popped up. It’s better (and is FOSS), but it’s tied to Firefox and still doesn’t do everything I wanted it to do.

Yesterday, I found out about Mendeley (never underestimate the power of whinging on Twitter – my EndNote whinge was pulled by Mendeley marketing and garnered an @ reply in 3 seconds flat). Mendeley is cloud-based (tick), can auto-add from any browser (tick), plays nicely with any word processor, not just Word (tick), allows you to organise and annotate PDF articles (tick), has mobile apps (tick), and most powerfully, has LinkedIn-style networking features – meaning you can find, trawl, subscribe to and recommend other researcher’s references. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter. Combined with Diigo for web annotation, I finally now have an efficient and connected referencing workflow.

It’s brought to my mind the idea of the new school of software/apps, and where software is heading. Outside of the specialist domain, the day of the DVD is about done. I thought I’d map some thoughts on the differences:

Old School

  • Closed & proprietary
  • Exists in physical form (CD, DVD, USB etc)
  • Paid
  • Tied to one device; OS-specific
  • Focus on complexity & power over UI
  • Doesn’t integrate with other software or tools, or integrates with a specific few

New School

  • Open or open-source
  • Web-based and/or browser/OS-agnostic
  • If not web-based, syncs over cloud (best-case scenario involves both – eg Dropbox, Mendeley, Evernote etc)
  • Multi-format (web, mobile, desktop)
  • Free, or freemium
  • Focus on UI and niche tools
  • Integrates with multiple tools, inc social media

Companies that are still trying to fit into the former model (Microsoft, I’m looking at you…) need to take a good, hard look at their relevancy in today’s web market. So EndNote – it’s sayonara from me. It’s been grand.

What do you actually do with an iPad?

The question was tabled recently – what do you actually do with an iPad? A lot of people like the idea of them, but when it comes to actually using one, they have a hard time articulating what they might use it for.

It’s a question of perspective. The genius of the iPad is not so much what it does, but how it lets you work. And I think until you have adopted a certain way of working, an iPad won’t necessarily make sense to you beyond a neat thing to access the internet with. The following is a list of things you can do with the way you work – understanding what you can do with an iPad will naturally follow.

  • Get yourself in the cloud. Dropbox, iDisk, GoogleDocs, whatever. If you don’t currently use cloud-based services, an iPad either won’t make a lot of sense to you, or will be a giant pain for you to use. Cloud services mean your stuff is always where you want it, when you want it. Get used to working this way. Your home computer will thank you, too (as will any computer you ever have to use anywhere).
  • Get yourself connected. The iPad makes it so easy to use social media there’s really no reason to keep putting it off. Twitter, for instance, is beautiful on the iPad. Twitter + Instapaper is a configuration not optional for any researcher. If you’re feeling brave, Flipboard is an extremely elegant and powerful way to mine social media for professional learning.
  • Get thee to an RSS aggregator. Trawling RSS feeds over lunch is a terribly efficient way to research and stay connected, and there are a veritable cornucopia of iPad apps that sync with popular readers.
  • Get used to working electronically. If you refuse to read documents on-screen and routinely mark or take notes by hand, the iPad will do nothing but frustrate you. Quell the instinct to hit ‘print’ and get your head around an electronic document workflow before you buy. Even without an iPad, it’s an easy way to make a very significant step towards reducing your carbon footprint.
  • Get used to using your fingers to do things. Unplug your portable laptop mouse and use your trackpad. If you worship at the altar of the mouse or stylus, you’re in for a frustrating ride.
  • Mix business and pleasure. If you’re the kind of person who never allows anything recreational near your work computer, you’ll be missing half the story on an iPad.
  • Repeat to yourself 1000 times, I do not need a file manager. If you go in expecting one, you will very quickly lose it and fling the iPad across the room in frustration. If you routinely use the ‘Open recent’ function in applications rather than opening a file from your file manager, you’ve already won half the battle.

Once you’ve conquered the above and bought an iPad, the very first thing you should do with it is either hand it to the nearest child, or sit next to an old lady on a plane/train/bus with it. These people will very immediately, and very naturally, without realising, show you just how powerful it can be. The next thing you should do with it is sit down and poke every possible thing on it. And finally, before doing anything, ask yourself ‘I wonder if I could do this on the iPad instead’. Chances are, you can.

    ULT Futures Colloquium 2010

    Here’s my presentation from the colloquium, for those who are interested to view/comment.

    [vodpod id=Video.4477107&w=425&h=350&fv=prezi_id%3Dbhkwggc3dd76%26amp%3Block_to_path%3D0%26amp%3Bcolor%3Dffffff%26amp%3Bautoplay%3Dno%26amp%3Bautohide_ctrls%3D0]

    Prezi has been a bit flaky with displaying the embed on this one, so if it’s not showing for you, use this link:

    Navigating 21st Century Education: A Practical Integration Strategy for Interactive and Collaborative Learning

    Are we having fun yet?

    On my mind lately has been the idea of student engagement and improved teaching quality. Most teachers and ed devs will agree that lecture-based, teacher-driven teaching with essay- and test-based summative assessment needs to change. Student-centred, collaborative and interactive learning design with formative and dynamic assessment models is coming into focus. Since this shift is based on a better learning experience for students, one would assume we’re already preaching to the converted – that students recognise that this shift in teaching is more effective and more closely meets their needs as learners. I’m yet to be convinced this is the case, though.

    As mentioned in a previous post, I was surprised to learn that, when asked, many students will report that lecture notes, Powerpoint slides and lecture podcasts are effective aspects of their study. I know and you know that this experience could be better, but do the students? Traditional tertiary teaching methods result in success for many, in that their desired outcome of a degree is achieved. To most, this is what tertiary education looks like. I’m curious, though, how many students are working through a course, simply feeling as though they are text-regurgitating essay-writing machines ticking boxes, but aren’t aware that it doesn’t have to be like this? That it is possible to enjoy and be enthusiastic about learning? Many students, even at postgraduate level, lack the knowledge of educational theory and research and the metacognitive skills to be able to identify the cause of frustration and potential solutions based on awareness of their needs as a learner.

    What I’m getting at is that I suspect that there are large numbers of students who aren’t necessarily aware that they could potentially be experiencing a much more engaging form of education. If we are advocating a change in teachers’ perceptions of what effective learning is but are not changing students’ perceptions, are we able to continue to attract these students to our courses? What kind of strategies do we need to adopt to begin to shift students’ perceptions?

    Another quick note on tech, literacy and creativity

    Came across a blog post today on this video:


    The author wonders if technology like this is limiting kids’ ability to use their imagination and engage in creative play, and be interested in ‘normal’ books. This was my response:

    I think there’s room for both. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s no reason you couldn’t take the phone out of that book and have kids draw things they could imagine being out the windows, pop the drawings in the book and make up their own stories. There’s no reason kids couldn’t use the iPhone to take photos, record sounds and make their own images to insert into the book. There’s no reason kids couldn’t make their own book to fit an iPhone into.

    Creativity and literacy are what you make of it – technology and imagination are not mutually exclusive.

    Adaptive literacy vs illiteracy vs idiocy

    This charming video popped up on Twitter today (via @markdrechsler):

    UPDATE: The video has now been removed. Essentially, it was an anti-Labor ad by the Liberal Party that flaunted gross misuse of the word ‘whose’.

    It brought to mind a debate I’ve been having both internally and with others for a while now about the English language.

    I fundamentally identify as a linguistic pedant. I am a stickler for accurate spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation, and atrocities like the above tend to make me want to curl up in a corner in despair. And for a long time, so did txt spk, ditto fur teh LOLspeak (which iz not teh roxor).

    But. In a previous lifetime I did half a degree in linguistics. And as such, I’m compelled to argue the case for the legitimate evolution of a vernacular. Widespread use of an English variant by a community should be seen as a legitimate means of communication. The ability to code-switch between these should be seen as a trait of an effective communicator.

    Technology is often seen as the culprit when talking about the declining literacy rates and the proliferation of text-speak. However, I would argue that any decline in literacy is not a result of technology itself, but of a failure to adapt the bounds of literacy with the advent of particular technologies and new ways of communicating. I think there’s a lot of room in today’s definition of literacy for exploring the connectivity domain (internet, mobile devices etc) and how effective communication works within that community.

    That said, it can’t be at the exclusion of proficiency in formal English. Especially (are you listening, real estate agents??) if you are operating in the professional domain. And if students are not attaining proficiency in formal English, that is a separate issue for education and not one to do with the use of technology. Whose driving that issue, Libs?

    For some light humour, Taylor Mali demonstrates exactly why you can’t rely on spell-check, and why technology is no substitute for common sense:


    And finally, I’ll leave you with this:

    I iz in ur langwijes, adaptin ur litrasees.

    A case of you don’t know what you don’t know?

    One of my current research projects involves assisting lecturers to make small and practical changes to the way they teach and the tools they use to teach, particularly to distance ed students. In a nutshell, the lecturers in the trial units are changing a percentage of their assessment to focus on student-generated, collaborative learning using an easily-managed local WordPressMU installation. None of the lecturers have previously taught using social media or any kind of interactive or collaborative task in their (distance ed) teaching, and none of the students have previously experienced the use of these in their degree.

    What is most interesting for me coming out of the student survey data is the perception of what effective and engaging learning is. One of the survey questions asks students to identify tools and aspects of distance learning that they find engaging and effective – and nearly every student has answered lecture notes, lecture podcasts and Powerpoint slides. Now, I’ll admit I initially cringed at this. Education research has been advocating a move away from this kind of push delivery for years now. And personally, as a learner, these three things are the most tedious, boring, disengaging features of distance learning. I realise that my level of self-directedness is probably not the norm in adult learners, but I also did not expect to get a near 100% response rate in favour of old-school, content-push, read-this-then-write-an-essay delivery.


    I’m reluctant to tie concepts to a demographic, but nearly all respondents are in the 36-50 age bracket. They’re comfortable with this style of learning. Why fix what ain’t broke? Many also said they hated groupwork, thought social media was a waste of time and so on. I was getting concerned that those who keep telling me that this ‘new kind of teaching’ isn’t relevant to our demographic of external students might have a point. Until I read on.

    Except for a couple of (not unexpected) respondents who put it in the ‘too hard’ basket, almost all the students who initially noted they preferred to learn via lecture notes and Powerpoints and who were unconvinced of the value of social media indicated that they were finding the collaborative blog task really valuable and engaging, significantly more so than they had expected. Which leads me to wonder – is it simply a case of we don’t know what we don’t know? I have long thought that adult learners have the same needs as school students when it comes to in-depth, engaging and valuable study, yet feedback from adult students often indicates otherwise. I have also long suspected that educators often confuse engagement with outcomes – what I didn’t realise is that maybe students do this too. So what I’m asking now is – is there a better experience distance students could be having, that they might not be aware of?

    Just because it ain’t broke doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.