Monthly Archives: August 2011

How I Learned to Stop Complaining About Being Distracted and Made Forgetful By the Internet and Learned to Love the PIM

Dr. John Estes is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Malone University. He speaks to us today about leveraging PIMs (Personal Information Management databases) to organize the deluge of information which we are exposed to each day. The use of a PIM, I am a big fan of Omnifocus and Endnote, is an excellent method of managing our digital lives. Thank you, John, for closing out the “Faculty Speak Classroom Geek” series with this most excellent entry!


The brain is not a computer. It’s not even like a computer. If nothing else comes from this little essay, I hope that pointing out the debasing effect of that metaphor is of some use; the Malone mission is advanced every time a human being is disabused of referring to herself as a machine. A computer cannot be programmed to generate a random number, and thus has nothing of consequence on us, even if they can beat us at chess and Jeopardy.

Even so, despite the sci-fi warning of Skynet, the Borg, the Matrix and the HAL 9000, we press on. Many of us carry small supercomputers in our pockets and bags all day. If you’re reading this, you are probably trying to figure out how (or whether) these tools augment and facilitate learning, despite the steady flow of research beginning to demonstrate that our cultural and individual immersion in an ever-connected, screen-driven world is morphing, if not compromising, aspects of what we have long considered our core humanity: memory, attention, creativity, community. If you are like me, this research does little but ratify what experience has already suggested, if not proven.

I am really not trying to be cranky. I’ve been using so-called “new media” in my classes for nearly eight years, but I’m as suspicious of them as I am excited about them, as ambivalently wed to them as I am to my personal and writing life. It bears reminding that written text and the printed book are themselves media technologies susceptible to hype and were, like our new gadgets, thought by many to auger the end of civilization. And since they aren’t going away anytime soon–since our digitally native students cannot give their existence a second-thought and are less aware than we are that like any tools, electronic media operate as an extension of the self and will–the best thing we can do is encourage a line of questioning about media new and old. As Marshall McCluhan put it, “[A]ny medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary.” The liberally educated individual should be reflexively wary of and skeptical about all tacit assumptions and biases; our work is to make these manifest and available for reflection. Is makes a difference whether one thinks of the heart as a drum machine, a blood pump, or a lonely hunter.

Managing the Deluge

Even if you have never heard the phrase “attention economy,” you negotiate it every day. How often do you swear you’ll check your email less often, limit your time on Facebook, or take a phone sabbath? I couldn’t be the only one who feels like I was more productive/creative/efficient 10 years ago, before I had so many tools and such easy access to information? Or who thinks maybe I was happier then, despite not being able to remind myself of Fermat’s Last Theorem or the actors who have played God within an instant of wanting it? The fuss and fury used to about time management, and it still is in a way, but it’s actually more helpful to reconceptualize the problem as a scarcity of attention.

This dilemma is obvious: we are awash in information–much of it useless or distracting, and just as much of it interesting, if not vital to our work–and the competition for our attention is fierce. Hard choices must constantly be made, and we must work harder and harder to stay focused. We must even work harder and harder to be bored, if one sees a value in that. The ability to navigate this glut intelligently, especially for those of us reared in a slower, more analog world, can be elusive. Despite our attempts to the contrary, psychological research shows that the human brain simply cannot multitask without exacting a cost on the quality of our work. What we and our students need, to augment sheer will power, are tools and habits that help us manage the overload and find a way toward an intentional focus that helps us channel our attention and creative energies.

Enter the PIM

There is a cottage industry of productivity tools that promise to help us be better stewards of our attention: task managers, full-screen text editors, and the class of application I want to focus on, the Personal Information Manager. A PIM, as they are called, is essentially a database with (one hopes) a slick interface that helps and encourages you to capture, store and process all of your data. We all must be editors and curators now, and I try to impress upon students that this is one of the most important skills they will (or should) tackle. Imagine having all your data–from contacts, credit card numbers and passwords, to hordes of notes, PDFs and ebooks–in one place that is actually many places, having it searchable and sharable. So long as you trust the keepers of this information (a matter not to be taken lightly), it’s a pretty good scenario for a writer, scholar, or citizen of the digital age.

The reference manager is a specialized class of PIM tailored for research, and deserves mention. On the professional end most everyone knows of EndNote, and maybe Bookends (Mac), but for student use there’s nothing quite like Zotero, a free utility developed by a group at George Mason University. While one downside may be its Firefox-only plugin capability, its benefits far outweigh whatever sacrifice that might entail. From within the browser one can collect, organize, and take notes on sources, including archiving webpages for offline viewing, leaving the dirty work of bibliographic formatting–your choice of format–to the program. An increasing number of academic, library, and popular website are coded to allow reference managers to easily gather pertinent data, but since nothing is foolproof, users must stay aware of what is being collected and fill in any missing data, and of course records can be manually created as well. Another nifty feature it has (as all the high-end ref managers do) is the ability to insert citations directly into word processors, creating a Works Cited as one writes. For the price, it has all the features a student needs (and plenty for most professionals), is easily mastered, and since so much of our research is done online, it fits right into existing workflows. The prospect of not having to worry about such minutiae as the difference between comma placement in MLA vs. APA vs. Chicago style ever again is either a revelation or a horror, depending on your frame of reference.

The Elephant in the Room

The ideal PIM would be with you always (if you wanted), like a trusty notebook, ubiquitously present for import or export or browsing, syncing invisibly over the air between devices. This ideal is beginning to be realized, although implementations vary. The best web-based app is surely Backpack by 37signals, which is really a sophisticated wiki with many collaborative features that make it capable of being a hub for class writings. On the Mac, there is DevonThink and Yojimbo, on Windows OneNote. All three of these are robust, and have iPhone and/or iPad apps with some level of sync capability. A few programs like Papers (Mac only) and Mendeley (cross-platform) do all that plus have a built-in reference manager. The watchword in this category is “frictionless”–minimizing the number of steps, keyboard strokes or mouse moves it takes you to get information from its source into your database. The ecosystem that has come so far the closest to this ideal is probably EverNote, which touts itself as “an extension of your brain.”

Its power and usefulness as a classroom tool is a function not just of it features, of which there are many, but its reach. Not only is it available for Mac and Windows, but has apps for all major handheld and tablet devices so students can make us of it whatever with what they have. Also, your data resides on the web so it can be accessed from any computer. It has hooks into every major browser, several RSS readers, email, Twitter, as well as scanners and other apps that can send documents and media files into the database. You can snap a picture, record a voice memo or even a video in the field, tag it, send it to EverNote and later sift through your day’s haul on your laptop without having to download or move files. Taking advantage of its magnetic Smart Cover, EverNote has turned the iPad 2 into an electronic flash card.

One habit such a tool encourages is constant attentiveness. As writers we are always working on something but can’t divert focus to deal with every passing idea, a web page we surreptitiously come across, or even all of the data we find when purposefully searching. What EverNote and other PIMs make possible is fast, frictionless collection for later retrieval, culling, and reflection. To Capture is to Remember might make a good tagline. Students who make good use of a database like this will benefit by the longer development arc for their papers and research projects, giving them more matter in front of them (virtually at least) and more time to make connections between and insight into their data.

EverNote’s organizational schema is the Notebook, in which one can have as many Notes as one wants. And because Notes and Notebooks can be shared (publicly or privately), one way I intend to use EverNote this coming semester is to replace Google Docs as the means by which students can share their work with me and fellow students for workshopping drafts and submission for grading. Students can share files with me and I’ll be able to send an annotated PDF directly back into their EverNote Notebook. Having a repository like this should obviate some of the problems I’ve run into with Google Docs (similar to those explored here), particularly issues of mass file organization and student privacy. Going the other way, I can have a class Notebook shared with them into which I can put course documents and whatever else I wish to distrubute to everyone, and it will automagically arrive on their desktops without having to open an email or download it from a website.

There is something disturbing about a computer program that promises to take over the work of human memory. Are we at risk of becoming stockpilers rather than learners? This is already happening according to a study released this summer. And it’s a turn of events that was foreseen a few thousand year ago. In Phaedrus Plato tells the story of Thamos, a king, and Theuth, the god who invented writing. When Theuth brings writing to Thamos, asking that he help distribute his new invention to the people, promising it will make them wiser and aid their memories, Thamos balks. He claims that it will in fact have the opposite effect: once one can write thoughts down, there will be no need to commit them to memory. Writing will “implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he says. And neither will people be wiser, as they will only seem to know much, possessing the conceit of wisdom. I would like to think that we can judiciously make use of these media so long as we cultivate our critique and careful use of them. I would like to think that assimilation by machines is not inevitable, that resistance is not futile.

Readings, Class Discussion and Google Docs

Dr. Jay Case is professor of history at Malone University who specializes in church and missionary histories as well as the church’s influence upon American and global culture. Jay is respected by students and colleagues and carries a wealth of experience (including six year of missions work in Africa) and perspective. Jay writes to us today about a semester-long experience of allowing students to submit their reading responses through Google Docs. He weighs to pros and cons and explains how he will do it differently next time around. Jay is in the middle of publishing a new book so I appreciate his taking the time to write to us too! Thank you Jay!

The idea: requiring students to use Google Docs to submit responses to readings.

The rationale: Those of us who are well acquainted with human nature and student behavior are not surprised that many (most?  almost all?) students will not do the reading if we just ask them politely.  (Nagging does not seem to work very well either, and can be considered bad form in some quarters).   And yet, some of us teach disciplines in which students really need to read and discuss texts if they are truly going to engage the material on a sophisticated level.   There are many ways to address this problem, but for many years I have assigned a question for each reading.  Students know that in just about every class, they will have to turn in a response to the question, based on the reading.  For many years, I had students turn in hard copy responses.  But last spring, when I team-taught a GEN 460 class with Andrew Rudd, he suggested that we have students submit their responses (and their formal papers, for that matter) using Google Docs.  Instead of submitting a hard copy each day, students would submit their responses electronically.

Pedagogically, this system addresses many of the same goals that I had for submitting hard copies.   If the question were phrased well, students would have to do at least some minimal reading to be able to give a decent response.  By doing the reading ahead of time, they would come to class with something of substance to discuss.  And those of us who are well acquainted with human nature and student behavior know that students will often delay large chunks of reading until right before the test or paper is due.  By spacing out sections of the reading over a number of class sessions, students take in the reading more gradually, as we go along.

The use of Google Docs, however, adds a few new wrinkles to the process.  (I should mention that Andrew set up the system for us last spring, so I can’t speak to all of the technical details of getting the system up and running.  I’ll stick mostly to the pedagogical issues here).


I found several parts of this system to be an improvement over the old system of submitting hard copies:

  1. Most obviously, we didn’t have to spend time collecting responses during each class session and we preserved a small part of our national woodlands by saving paper.
  2. We also eliminated a common excuse (sometimes legitimate, sometimes just a lie – but who can tell?) that students could not bring their paper to class that day because their printer was malfunctioning.
  3. Another nice feature of Google docs is that each submission is not only dated, but has a time of submission stamped with the submission, so we know exactly when a student finished a response.  Even more helpful, for our formal papers, Google Docs has a feature that allows you to see the revision history of a paper.  We can see when and how many times students made revisions to their papers and responses.  This helps clear up strange excuses students might have if they did not submit things on time.  (I wish I had this feature in another class last spring where I did not use Google docs.  I had a plagiarism issue where a student claimed to have put together two papers – one in which he had copied information from the internet and one composed of his original writing that he had completed at the time of the due date.  He said he accidently submitted a plagiarized paper when he intended to submit his original writing.  This excuse still did not save him, but it would have been difficult for him to make this argument if I had access to all of his revision data.)
  4. We also found that students in this class wrote more fully and more thoughtfully when they had to submit a response electronically, as compared to hand-written hard copies that previous classes had submitted.  Perhaps if we had required typed responses in previous classes, the effect would be the same, but it does seem that students took the questions more seriously when they had to type up an electronic response.  It may be that this form felt more like a formal paper to them.
  5. At the end of the semester, we had a complete electronic copy of all student submissions, our comments, and grades given, in case there were any questions or issues that arose with grades.
  6. It is easy to highlight insightful or problematic comments students made in their responses.  For comments, I have found typing to be a tad more cumbersome than the old-fashioned pen and ink method, but Andrew has a nifty iPad that allows him to write in responses by hand that appear in electronic form on the Google doc submission.

Disadvantages or Bugs Yet to be Worked Out

  1. We still need to figure out a way to effectively handle the electronic organization.  Google Docs simply lists all the submissions in one big long list, titled by whatever the student put on the submission.  When you get 25 different submissions each class period, this piles up pretty quickly.   Google Docs does allow you to make folders, but then you have to spend time filing everything.  Andrew had his student workers periodically file these away, but it does seem that there might be a better way to handle this part.
  2. Those of us who are acquainted with human nature and professor behavior know that professors sometimes fail to return submissions in timely fashion.  Because we did not have hard copies cluttering up our office to remind us that the students needed these papers back, Andrew and I sometimes allowed too much time to pass before we graded and responded to the submissions.  Furthermore, since we were responding electronically, it was up to the student to check the papers to see the grade and response.  I’m guessing that many of them did not look at many of our responses.  I’m not exactly sure what to do about this problem.  Suggestions will be welcome.
  3. Some students in the beginning of the semester did not properly submit their responses, so they ended up some place other than our Google Docs account.  I think this problem can be cleared up with better communication up front.

Next Step

I am most excited about a possible procedure with Google Docs that Andrew came up with when we were debriefing after the semester ended.  When we teach GEN 460 next spring, we will require a due date and time that would be about 6 hours before class begins.  Andrew and I will then read, respond and grade the responses before class begins.  The big advantage here is that we can better draw in thoughtful students who tend to be quiet in class discussions. Very often, we found out that certain students had written out a great insight or observation in their responses (which we read several days later), but had said nothing in class.  If, when class began, we have a few great points or quotes in hand from the quieter students, we would be able to ask them to expand or explain these points at appropriate moments in the discussion.  Hopefully, this will help to get these students more involved in the discussion, help direct the discussion in more fruitful directions, and possibly slow down verbose but less thoughtful students who can dominate the discussion.  It will also compel procrastinating professors to grade the responses in a more timely manner.  We will see how that idea works.

Jay (and Andrew’s) Kit

  • Malone Google Docs (all faculty and staff and students have an account and sign in with their Malone username and password)

Additional Resources

Smart Boards in the Classroom

Dr. Jeff Beine is an assistant professor in Malone’s School of Education and is our resident “Smart board guru.” He is a Smart-certified instructor in addition to his academic expertise in early childhood cognitive development (ask him about Piaget sometime).

With the proliferation of Smart boards in Ohio and other state P-12 classrooms, it makes good sense that the School of Education is equipping Malone students to use these boards to their maximum potential. But what about actually using the boards to teach undergrads and graduates (both within the School of Education and without) at Malone? Are these [expensive] classroom tools just a gimmick or do they carry real pedagogical value? This is the question that Jeff explores. Thank you, Jeff, for your post!

Whether you prefer to call them Smart boards (which is actually a specific brand name from Canada’s Smart Tech, Inc.) or their more generic name, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs), today there’s little doubt that this technology is impacting America and Britain’s classrooms far more than any recent tech wave since, say, the advent of the Internet itself into school buildings.

For this week’s “Faculty Speak Classroom Geek” series discussion, I’d like to raise the issue of Smart boards in our Malone classrooms.   First, let’s consider five demonstrated benefits of teaching with an IWB.


  • Improved student motivation: Probably the most commonly cited (and most easily documented) immediate benefit of IWBs is almost universal elevations in student motivational levels, regardless of age levels and academic subject environments. In particular, my Malone education majors (as well as the students of several local middle school teachers I’ve interviewed) often remark that it’s fun to play with (i.e., touch, interact) Smart boards.  With the newest software that that Smart Tech is now unveiling with its latest-and-greatest 800 Series Smart board, this intuitive playfulness is being maximized like never before with objects that comically bounce back from the board’s edges when casually tossed by the user, instantly expand or flip when two fingers are used, or offer students opportunities to virtually experience unusual experiences but as frog dissections and bridge building.  At almost no expense, educators can now download literally dozens of fun learning/review activities from’s Teacher Exchange site.
  • Improved attention-getting: In terms of improving student learning, both modeling and retention theory rest on the same touchstone: students must be paying attention in order to learn well.  Here, a Smart board’s ability to unleash a host of unexpected sounds, shapes, and colors at a moment’s notice is almost unparalleled.   Certainly for those professors with a knack for comedy, unexpected absurdities such as a giant grinning lab rat that has to be shoved off of one’s lecture notes regarding operant conditioning tend to perk up even sleepy Ed Psych sophomores.   On a more traditional scale, using the virtual highlighter tool or instant spotlight feature (which temporarily darkens much of the screen) can be used to emphasize key points well.  As I was recently telling the professors of Nursing, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the Smart board’s transparency mode which allows a professor to move objects (such as arrows or question boxes) over playing video clips.
  • Visualization: Though I’m not convinced that an IWB can truly meet the learning needs of kinesthetic learners (i.e., Is sliding a virtual red square across a screen an authentic tactile/kinesthetic learning experience?)  a well-designed Smart board presentation can offer a struggling learner a plethora of visual examples to help them construct meaning from abstract lecture points.   Even more interesting, what if we educators started viewing  IWBs as windows (rather than just really expensive dry erase boards) – portholes into the real world beyond our classrooms – where local professionals facing interesting challenges can interact with our Malone students in real-time via Skype videoconferencing technology?
  • Organization: An interesting yet unexpected idea that I gleaned from local middle school teachers was in how many different ways they were using their IWBs during a single lesson: self-checked attendance, homework self-reports, opening bell work activities, behavioral reinforcement, collaborative learning, formative assessment, etc.    Moving beyond the IWB-as-just-a-whiteboard mentality, maybe Smart boards ought be viewed as efficient media hubs into which a wide range of classroom input and output mediums can be conveniently and effectively meshed into a fascinating whole?   To that end, I recently returned from a Smart Tech training session where a new classroom technology management software package called Classroom Sync can allow a teacher to wirelessly monitor and manipulate every linked computer in his classroom.
  • Creative thinking: Though Smart Tech would probably want me to make my final IWB asset the fact that Smart Board presentations can be easily notated upon and then offered online for after-class viewing, I think that the real advantage here is seized by those teachers who dare to leave their tool palettes up during their lessons thus allowing themselves or their students to make changes to presented ideas/information during the lesson itself.  Though maybe not quite as slick as completely prefabricated presentations offered in full-screen mode, I like the IWB’s capability to change and flow with the students’ actually learning.

Are Smart boards worth their cost?

“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” Jan Brady, The Brady Bunch

For all the accolades and piles of cash spiraling around IWB’s these days, an experienced educator might be left to wonder along with middler, Jan Brady, whether or not all this Smart board hype is really so great when you actually have to live with the thing for a while.   To that end, I would like to conclude by presenting five real or imagined weaknesses associated with IWB’s:

  • Too teacher-centered: Probably the main concern coming out of the literature regarding the use of IWBs is the unintended consequence that K-12 classrooms are once again becoming more teacher-centered than collaborative learning environments.   Yes, yes, you can call up a handful of students over the course of a lesson to briefly manipulate some prefabbed elements on a few lecture slides every now and then, but in reality the person most engaged with the board is the teacher herself.   Under the guise of technology are we allowing our students to slip back into traditional passive learner roles?
  • Glitchy: Sure, when they work that boards are great, but what about all those wasted minutes when the software and hardware stops functioning correctly?   Let me be clear, I think that Malone’s tech staff does terrific job responding to our requests (including emergency in-classroom service) but the reality is that with any new technology, there are frequently pesky bugs in the system that you’ll have to learn to overcome or somehow ignore.
  • Short-lived shelf life issues: Though the School of Nursing will soon have the campus’ IWB-using profs drooling over a brand new 800 Series Smart board now being installed in Regula, don’t you kind of feel sorry for all those local K-12 teachers still struggling to use their first generation Smart board systems relying on unstable boards with wheels (What was Smart Tech thinking?) and roller cart-mounted projectors pulsing near blinding streams of light images onto the boards (not to mention into the blood-shot eyes of weary teachers) all day.   But even with the best wall-mounted projectors (as we enjoy here in Mitchell Hall), one has to wonder just how long students will continue to be fascinated with IWB technology.
  • Evidence is motivational; not educational: Though the research literature can readily offer the positive results of student and teacher surveys as to their feelings of satisfaction regarding IWB-based lessons, there’s precious little evidence out there that using a Smart board significantly impacted actual student learning.  Actually, it’s the remote response devices (i.e,. the clickers) now getting the best data.
  • Simplistic, pre-fab’ed lessons/questions lack higher order cognition and constructivist learning experiences: Yes, Smart boards and their related software possess the incredibly efficient ability to conveniently store literally hundreds (or thousands) of multifaceted IWB-based lessons replete with engaging video clips, remote response questions/assessments, graphic organizers, and review games.   But is the speed and efficiency of these boards really helping us to provide wiser, more reflective and creative citizens?


So where do I stand on IWB technology?   Mark me down as a cautious and curious supporter trying to improve his own developing skill set while wondering what it’s going to take to effectively move these new tools beyond their typically cozy homes in math classrooms.   I see tremendous upside if we as educators stop seeing IWBs as dry erase boards on steroids, but rather look to them as information hubs pulling together the different types of learning resources in our classrooms, and better yet as windows through which our thoughtful lectures and theories can be inconveniently interrupted by the complexities and intoxicating urgencies of the real world.

Jeff’s Kit:

  • Smart Board
  • Smart Board tools (preloaded on every computer on campus for the last several years). Also downloadable and licensable by all Malone faculty.


  • IWB’s – Interactive White Boards. As Kleenex are to tissues, so Smart boards are to IWB’s
  • Kinesthetic Learners – “Students” who learn through carrying out a physical activity
  • Constructivism in Learning – Some of the language Jeff used in this post is definitely oriented along the lines of constructivism learning theory (Piaget et al.). You will forgive my [Adam’s] paraphrase but constructivism is the idea that learners build an understanding of a topic over time. Their increased exposure to a subject increases their [constructed] understanding of said topic.

Additional Resources