Four web tools for smarter studying


As EAP teachers our main job is to help students to improve their language skills, but we also often end up giving advice on studying generally that don’t strictly relate to English. Things such as note taking or Powerpoint skills are not strictly language issues but many of us address those in class as well.

As someone interested in technology I also recommend web tools and apps that I think will help our students study more efficiently or just manage their time better. This is something particularly relevant for our students as the stress of studying for a higher level degree in English can often lead to poor organisation and a general lack of control over what they’re doing.

To that end, I want to recommend a few apps and web services that you can recommend to your students to help them get on top of their studying – and maybe help you as a teacher get a little better organised!

Todoist

In my view, Todoist is the best to-do list/task manager out there, though it has plenty of competition from apps such as Trello, Wunderlist and Asana. The simple act of getting all the tasks you need to do out of your head and into somewhere else can help free the mind to focus on the task in hand. This is especially important for our students as they have so many things they have to do to complete all their homework, manage their home and social life.

todoist web 1

you can view your tasks by time or by project

Todoist does this spectacularly well across all platforms, it has apps for Android/ios as well as a web version. Even better it has a Gmail plugin so you can access your to-do list directly from your email page as well as add emails as tasks to your list.

you can add a task directly from an email in Gmail

The design of todoist is very clean but is also very sophisticated in the level of detail you can bring to your task lists. So, you can create ‘projects’ (activities with more than one task basically) and they can be colour-coded or assigned to different people. You can add priority levels to tasks, or you can tag them with a particular term. You can even create sub-projects of your projects if you need to fine grain them further.

If you care – and I personally don’t – Todoist will also gamify your tasks for you. The more tasks you do, the more you increase your ‘Karma’ score and you can get all kinds of stats and charts letting you know how productive you’ve been.

Diigo

Diigo is a great site for collecting and collating all your favourite websites or webpages into one place and in such a way that makes them easily searchable and shareable.

This is particularly useful if you move from computer to computer frequently and so can’t always access your favourite bookmarks from your favourite browser. Or if you like the idea of working as a group and pooling the best websites you and your classmates/colleagues have found.

 

I personally couldn’t live without Diigo, it’s my brain on the web. People are always sending me links or I come across them through Twitter or other social media and it’s very easy to forget them. And then of course, you try to remember the site, but the name escapes you and you end up typing in lots of vague terms hoping to find it again. But now I have a routine of immediately putting the link into Diigo as soon as I get it and it means I can access it from ANY computer or mobile device.

diigo main view 1

How does it work? Well, when you come across a website you want to save/remember, you can copy the link and go to your Diigo account and click Add and you’ll have the option of adding a bookmark, PDF, image or note. This isn’t the slickest way of doing this, but the only option when you are using a public computer. When you click Add you can paste in the link, add a description, share to a group (more about that later) or add tags.

add a bookmark diigo

Tags are very useful as they essentially create search terms that you can use later to find a website again. So for example, today I heard about the website ECampus News. When I tagged it with the terms: elearning, journal, ecampus, news. If I come back to my Diigo list, I’ll be able to type in any of those terms and it will come up in the results.

diigo search

If you are on your own computer, you can install the Diigo add-on/extension in your browser making it super easy to save any website. This is a small button that sits up alongside your address/search bar – when you find a website you want to save, click on it and a small dialogue box pops up asking for details, tags etc and then you can quickly save it.

clicking the Diigo extension button brings up a quick save menu

clicking the Diigo extension button brings up a quick save menu

And there are mobile apps to go with it as well. For both iOS and Android, if you find a website you want to save, you can easily do that through the sharing function in the browser.

And groups…this is where it really comes into its own. You can have your own list of bookmarks but you can also create groups based around topic or interest. You can then decide which of your bookmarks you want to share to these groups and which ones you’ll just keep for yourself. This is particularly useful for your student groups as a way of sharing useful websites for studying English or between teachers as a way of sharing sites for lesson planning or extra materials and resources.

If you want to take a look at some of the groups out there, go across to the Diigo community site and do a search for groups from there.

Simplenote

I’ve talked a little in my blog about various note-taking tools such as EvernoteOneNote and Keep and how they can be a great way to take complex notes across devices.

But there’s also a case for keeping things simple and – unsurprisingly given the name – SimpleNote does this really, really well. Made by the people behind WordPress (which powers this blog and 25% of the web), it’s note-taking with all the bells and whistles taken out but with all the essential stuff left in.

You can access Simplenote via the web or through any mobile device and the interface is about as bare bones as you can get. In the web interface you can see below, you can view your list of notes on the left and on the right the note you are editing or viewing. You can add tags to a note just above it and this is a little like putting it into a folder and you can search via tags as well.

simplenote web interface

As you can see, the Simplenote interface is very basic

A couple of really neat features: you can share a document with another Simplenote user by simplying adding their email address in the tag bar above the note. That’s if you want them to be able to edit it. You can also share the note as a link if you want people just to view it.

My favourite feature in the web app is the version history. This is a small slider that lets you view previous versions of the note and restore them if you want to go back. Similar to track changes in Word or Revision History in Google Docs but a lot more elegant!

simplenote version history

the version history has a slider for moving between the different versions

And that’s about it. There’s a few other features such as pinning a note to the top of the list but not much more. I think SimpleNote is a great alternative if you want to stay taking notes in the cloud but find some of the current apps a little confusing and feature heavy.

Office Lens

One of Microsoft’s lesser known tools, Office Lens is essentially a scanner on your mobile phone. You can take pictures of book pages, powerpoint slides, business cards or whiteboard text and the app will tidy it up into a readable image or convert into text as either a PDF, Powerpoint or Word document.

office lens options

you can select the output for your scan from your mobile device

For international students I think this is particularly useful as they can use it to take pictures of lecture slides or tutor whiteboard notes after a lesson and then extract the text from them later for their own notes.

What’s nice in the app is that you can specify how you want your text to be saved, it can be saved as Word, PDF, Powerpoint, image, OneNote or all of these at the same time.

office lens save to

here you can see the options for saving your Office Lens scans

It does help if you have an online Office account so when you save your document, it’s automatically synced to those formats in your OneDrive account, but these are free to have with a reasonable amount of storage.

office lens in word

here you can see the extracted text available directly in Word

So, these are some useful apps and web tools you can direct your students towards to help them organise their study life. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any other recommendations for useful tools to help students study more effectively.


Profile photo of David Read

About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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