Tip: Productivity Tools
Tech tools to keep organized in your work as a professor - communicating with students, designing and delivering courses, managing a to-do list, and collaborating with colleagues.
*Updated version published Summer 2021 here.
This list of productivity tools is far from exhaustive; I put it together to share the technology that I use to help keep myself organized in my work as a professor - communicating with students, designing and delivering courses, managing my to-do list, and collaborating with colleagues. I’m sure you have many others that work for you, and I would love to get more suggestions!
COLLABORATIVE WRITING/STORAGE APPLICATIONS
There are so many ways to collaborate that work better than emailing files back and forth. If I could make just one productivity/collaboration change to my work, it would be to stop using email as a collaborative tool, because it’s just not effective. I use Dropbox Paper and Google Drive, although in different ways. For files that are being very actively worked on, I prefer Google Drive for the easy access from any device and very few clicks to get into an active document. It is also helpful that I can easily embed from my Drive into our LMS (Canvas) and my students all have a school Google-based account to be able to save files and access them easily. As more of the work done in committees/departments migrates into Canvas, I find I use Drive more and more. That said, I also still use Dropbox. For files that are less active and closer to a finished form, but which perhaps need more robust formatting than Google Docs allows, I’ll switch into Word and share files via Dropbox. When I want to share PDF versions of files (syllabi, conference presentation materials, readings for class), I always do that via Dropbox.
Other options: For die-hard Microsoft Office fans, Microsoft OneDrive is popular, and for files that need extra protection, SharePoint. I don’t love using either.
I almost exclusively communicate with students through our LMS - although I do not like in the Inbox function in Canvas. I use announcements and edit the course settings to allow students to comment on the announcements, and this works fairly well for sharing information and responding to questions that multiple students are likely to have. I choose to use announcements because each student can edit their notification preferences to get texts, emails to multiple emails, popups, etc. I do always have an open, ungraded discussion called “Questions?” where anyone can post questions, and I encourage students to answer each other; I want to help students get better at helping each other to find information, and I would love to answer a questions once in a discussion board (or in the comments on an announcement) rather than 10 individual times in my email. If your LMS’s communication system isn’t as robust, Remind is a great option that keeps everyone’s phone number private from others in the group. Slack has become extremely popular as well (see this Inside HigherEd article: 4 Reasons Slack Will Change How You Teach). Students will often set up their own GroupMe or WhatsApp for a class - if you as the instructor set one up, you might find that students will ask questions there, in a more informal setting, that they aren’t comfortable posing in a formal discussion.
EMAIL MANAGEMENT SERVICES
One of my goals with driving student questions into the class LMS site is to help manage the number of emails to sort through. I also use Outlook rules and filters to get my emails into folders, which help me to know which emails need more immediate responses. Frankly, this is still a work-in-progress; especially with the pivot to remote teaching in the spring, but really over the past 5 or so years, I’ve found the email volume to have greatly increased. I don’t love Outlook, but I’m stuck with it for work emails. Personally I use Gmail and have folders and filters set up there as well.
I’m intrigued by SaneBox - which complies emails from multiple accounts into one place, and offers a lot of tools…it’s not free, but it might be worth looking into (and they offer an educator discount as well).
IF THIS, THEN THAT
IFTTT - I have used If This, Then That (IFTTT) for years and find it simple & helpful. It is a set of “applets” that let you automate steps you want to have done automatically, or shortcuts for things you do often. I get email alerts about rain showers, I send myself an email anytime I like a tweet, I auto save any pictures I post to Facebook into Dropbox…there’s so many things you can do. Here’s an article from PC Mag about the 25 best uses of IFTTT.
For ‘on the go’ notes, I very often use voice-to-text and send myself an email…probably not the most efficient way to keep a running list of ideas! For something more involved, I will open a Google Doc. I tend to have one document as a running notes document for a given context. For example, if I’m on the Campus Beautification Committee, then I would have one doc for that committee, and each meeting would start with the date (made into a header so I can find dates via the outline function). Each new meeting would begin at the top of the doc, so that the most recent past meeting is always at the top. This works for me because I am a linear-thinking, outline-embracing type. Trying to use more mind-map style organization tends to frustrate me, because I spend time organizing and making it look nice.
But, lots of people love Padlet and Evernote! Microsoft OneNote is another popular app. Google Keep is more of a mind-flowy organization (like Padlet). Bear is for apple users, and I need my notes to sync across Apple and Microsoft devices. Drafts syncs, and looks promising as it’s text-focused - so perhaps not a great choice for folks who want to incorporate a lot of visuals, although I need to investigate this one some more. Agenda seems like it might meld note-taking and to-do lists, so this is on my agenda for further investigation.
I will admit that I’m still somewhat old school here. In the past I’ve used Zotero, but now I keep a spreadsheet (Google sheets, naturally) with a running log of sources I’ve read for a given topic or project. This spreadsheet (example here) is a big picture overview. It connects to a running list of potential sources to be read that I keep in a Google doc, and where I notate whether I have the source or if it’s been requested via ILLiad. I strikethrough any source that doesn’t pan out (but I don’t delete it off the running list until the project is done, so I don’t forget later what I’ve already read and discarded), and change the font color if I’ve read it and used it in my log.
To aid with note-taking, I’m experimenting this summer with using PowerNotes, which is a browser add-on that lets you highlight sections of anything you’re reading online and save it to a project, flagging the clip to a sub-topic and annotating the clip with whatever notes you want to add. Later, you can export the saved annotated clippings to spreadsheet or document files, and source information will be preserved. It’s only been about a month, but I really am finding PowerNotes helpful; I think because it fits seamlessly with how I like to work and how my brain processes ideas as I’m reading.
My needs here are probably the same as many faculty: students need to be able to make appointments from within a pre-set offering of office hours, it needs to be simple for students to use, and ideally an appointment will be auto-saved to both my and their calendar. It would be great to allow people outside the organization - prospective students, colleagues at other institutions - be able to access the schedule as well. Personally, after many years using Google calendar’s appointment feature, this summer I have started using Calendly. I switched because, with everything being online, I was actually using my Outlook calendar to manage web meetings and Calendly integrates with Outlook. Before choosing Calendly, I experimented with the Canvas LMS Scheduler tool, but was frustrated by the fact that it “lives” within a class, so students not rostered into one of your active courses - like, advisees - can’t make appointments this way.
Other scheduling apps that I haven’t yet explored: Acuity Scheduling and YouCanBook.me
I use this extensively, even in a “normal” semester. My 100% go-to is Screencast-O-Matic - I know that we have built-in service in Canvas that is basically the exact same software, and it populates directly into Canvas. Call me overprotective, but I prefer to record outside Canvas and put the videos on YouTube, and then embed the YouTube links so that I have clear ownership of the content I have created.
Techsmith offers several other screencast/video editing/video hosting options; they own SnagIt (more basic) and Camtasia (very feature-rich - but not free) . Screenflow is for Macs and Screencastify is a basic Chrome extension. Apowersoft works on any device and has a fairly robust set of options in the free version
I know a lot of people love the Todoist app, but I’ve had better luck with Google Tasks (here’s a good getting started article) and the Bullet Journal method, although I’m truly hit-or-miss on both. I’m still looking for the perfect way to track my tasks - right now I flag emails in Outlook, star emails in Gmail, have multiple paper lists floating around on my desk, have spreadsheets set up for various projects…it’s a lot, and I’m sure there’s a more efficient way to bring all these together. I just haven’t found it yet.
So, there’s my list of tech tools I find helpful - I would love to hear about others I’ve not tried, or “low-tech” solutions to managing the professor workflow!
I like google calendar reminders better than tasks. You can schedule them for a time, and then you get a reminder at that time (so you can do it or reschedule it).
"required, but not graded" How do you get students to cooperate when something is "not graded"? There are some students who just won't bother taking the time to do something that is not going to impact on their grade.
I might modify that to say "grade deduction if not done". Or, if it is a pre-requisite for some future (maybe summative) task, they either won't be able to complete or do well on the summative (follow-up) task or can even be locked out of the future task until the "required but not graded" task is done.