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Three Applications for Planning Classes

classroom[This is a guest post by Doug Ward, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he is teaching a research and digital literacy course he developed called Infomania. You can find him online at www.kuediting.com and www.journalismtech.com, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting.--@JBJ]

Planning a new class is a lot like starting a new research project: filled with the anticipation of discovery but also the trepidation of organizing material in a coherent way.

I’ve found that a combination of three tools — Scrivener, Evernote and Workflowy — eases some of that trepidation.

ProfHacker readers are no doubt familiar with Scrivener and Evernote. Ryan provided an excellent overview of Scrivener, explaining how he uses it for writing. George wrote about using it for transcription, and Mark and Billie looked at the Windows version (the one I use). Kathleen wrote about her conversion to Evernote, and Shawn Miller provided an excellent overview to the application.

Workflowy hasn’t been around as long as those other two programs, but it has become one of my most-used applications. It is essentially an outlining tool that creates hierarchies of bulleted lists. It’s a fairly basic online application, but it also has an iPad app that works offline. One of its best features is the ability to create collaborative projects. Scrivener doesn’t do that, and I’ve had mixed experiences with sharing Evernote folders.

I used to assemble class plans in Word, creating separate documents for ideas, scheduling, handouts, and potential readings, links and tools. I found that system clumsy and inefficient, though. The three-app method I use now isn’t perfect, but each of the programs contributes in an important way. Here’s how I use them.

Scrivener and Evernote

I started using Scrivener in its beta form for Windows and quickly made it part of my writing routine. I admittedly haven’t touched Scrivener’s advanced features. Rather, the structure of the program alone helps me organize my thoughts, group ideas into folders, and make everything visible along a column on the left side of the writing area.

As I was working with Scrivener one day, I realized that I needed that same format for class planning. I created pages for each week of a class and grouped them into folders. I created separate folders for a syllabus, ideas, possible class topics, and readings and links. Scrivener was far easier to use than a series of Word documents, or even one big Word document. I could move between pieces of the class easily, adding, subtracting and rearranging as much as I wanted.

Click for full-size.

Click for full-size.

As I created the course outline, I also began saving potential readings in Evernote. Again, the organizational structure was crucial, allowing me to group similar readings under headings like Digital Humanities, Search and Research, and Social Media. The best part of Evernote, though, is its ability to store complete articles in a searchable personal database. I rely an Evernote browser plugin called Clearly to strip away extraneous parts of web pages, allowing me to store only the articles themselves.

If you don’t use Scrivener, you could easily use Evernote alone for class planning. I prefer Scrivener’s interface, though. Scrivener was created with writers in mind, and class planning involves a lot of writing.

The only real problem I’ve found with creating class plans in Scrivener is the program’s lack of easy sharing. That was a problem when I needed to share my course material with instructors in a team-taught class. None of them had Scrivener. I could print the documents, but that would defeat the purpose of the organizational structure. They also couldn’t contribute suggestions, ideas, links or other elements to the outline I’d created. We did share some Evernote folders but found that system lacking, largely because it was difficult for everyone to send materials directly to the shared folders.

That’s where Workflowy came in.

Workflowy

Like Scrivener and Evernote, Workflowy has a fairly simple interface. Its series of hierarchical lists expand or contract depending on how you want to view them.

The free version of the program offers a fairly generous amount of use. It also has a free iPad app that allows you to work offline. The paid version of Workflowy ($49 a year or $4.99 a month) provides additional online workspace, the ability to change themes and fonts, and the option to back up to Dropbox.

Both the free and paid versions allow you to create shared lists that collaborators can add to and edit. That has been extremely helpful for my team-taught class.

For that class, which has a hybrid format, I transferred my week-by-week outline from Scrivener to Workflowy, along with links to the resources I had accumulated for online readings, videos and assignments. The other instructors were free to add any material they found, and we all could pick and choose the things that best suited our individual class sections.

To make material easy to find in Workflowy, I created subsections for goals, readings, videos, and potential assignments. By using the @ symbol next to fellow instructors’ names, I could show who was responsible for each component and allow others to show only that material if they wanted. Workflowy also allows use of the # symbol to identify topics for searching. By default, any links you add to Workflowy open in new windows, a small but important detail.

workflowy

Workflowy can be clunky. Moving material from one header to another requires the addition of hashtags that isolate elements after you click on them or search for them. Not exactly intuitive. It also lacks the ability to use bold, italic or other emphases, or to change the size of text. The creators say those functions are in the works. Workflowy also lacks the ability to store complete articles (at least not easily) or images, and I’ve found its iPad app difficult to navigate. The virtual buttons are simply too small for my fingers.

Despite those issues, Workflowy has become an integral part of my teaching. I still prefer using Scrivener and Evernote for classes I teach by myself, but I’ve relied heavily on Workflowy for my team-taught class. Its strengths are brevity, organization and collaboration. Its simplicity also allows colleagues with little technical expertise to catch on quickly. I also like the ability to enter material on my office computer and then pull it up on the iPad app in class.

Of course, these are just three options for planning and sharing class materials. What are your favorites?

Photo “Empty Classroom” by Flickr user Max Wolfe / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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