techEDvance
March 3, 2014

Last week Apple unveiled two new deployment programs that will be helpful for anyone (like me) who is deploying iPads to students. In short, the Device Enrollment Program allows administrators to distribute devices and supervise them over the air and AppleID for Students allows parents to give permission for their children under 13 to have an AppleID. Both of these programs remove quite a bit of friction from the deployment process, and allow for more flexibility when administering institutionally-owned devices.

I highly recommend reading Frasier Speirs’ (@fraserspeirs) detailed explanation of these two programs to understand how they work.

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February 19, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, Drafts (iPhone, iPad) is an app that I launch countless times each day to record text. Drafts allows me to configure multiple actions which send that text elsewhere, often with just one tap. I use it to record and email notes during classroom walkthroughs and for many other purposes. It’s so important to me that it sits in my iPhone dock with just two other apps – Fantastical (iPhone) and Mail.

I recently found out about a new use for Drafts which is to quickly add items to a list in Reminders. I wrote last week about how I use reminders to keep grocery lists and to jog my memory at a certain time or location. I can list as many items as I want in Drafts and then, with one tap, send the list to the Reminders app. This is particularly helpful for grocery lists. I can cut and paste an entire list from a text or email into Drafts and, with one click, I can add it to my Target, Costco, or Menards list in Reminders.

To use this action, simply create a new action in Drafts and replace “YourList” with the name of the list you want to send the items to):

drafts://x-callback-url/create?text={{!YourList}}%0A[[draft]]&action={{List in Reminders}}

There is a secondary use for this action which is both more geeky and more useful for me. Since my recent switch from OmniFocus (Mac, iPhone, iPad) to Todo Cloud, I am now using a Reminders list as the middleman between Drafts and Todo Cloud. [Omnifocus has a similar feature, but it's not as robust and is implemented differently.]

Todo Cloud lets me add a special CalDAV list to the Reminders app. When this list is set as the default, I can dictate tasks to Siri and they will be added to the list. Todo Cloud then sees the additions and sends the items from Reminders directly to my Todo Cloud inbox.

An example of how I use this is when I am in a meeting and I need to record more than one task. In that case I simply open Drafts and list as many tasks as necessary. Using a modified version of the action above, I can send the entire list of tasks to the Todo Cloud list where they are immediately vacuumed up into the Todo Cloud inbox. Todo’s intelligent task parsing makes this process even more helpful, but that’s a post for another day.

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February 13, 2014

One way I try to stay organized and on top of my obligations as a dad, husband, principal, and student, is by creating a clear distinction between events, tasks, and reminders. I’ve consciously tried to differentiate between the three for the past year and to put each in its own specific place. Here’s a brief explanation of how I do this and the tools that I use to keep each of the three straight. read more …

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February 10, 2014

Bradley Chambers (@bradleychambers) and Fraser Speirs (@fraserspeirs) have just laid out their plans for the next 15 episodes of their excellent podcast, Out of School. Each episode will be a look at one component of a successful 1:1 program. Their timing couldn’t be better, as I’m preparing to roll out a 1:1 deployment at my school this Fall. Here are the topics they have planned for the next 15 weeks:

Vision and Leadership
Current context (pupil access to existing devices and pupil internet at home)
Infrastructure analysis
Teacher training and development
Device selection
Financing and Roll-Out
Buying Accessories (or not)
Mobile Device Management
App deployment
Pupil safety (electronic and physical)
DR and damage procedures
Choosing a Reseller
What do you do with your existing computer setup?
Parent communication
Deployment day

Bradley and Fraser know what they’re talking about and I will be listening very carefully.

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January 15, 2014

Coincidentally, two articles were posted yesterday – by different authors – about Drafts and iOS automation that I recommend reading. Drafts (iPad, iPhone) is an app that I think any professional with an iOS device can use to get things done more efficiently. For example, as a school principal I’ve written about how I use Drafts to automate the process of taking, storing and sending notes when I do classroom walkthroughs. For those looking for a starting point with Drafts, Mike Vardy (@mikevardy) has you covered with this post.

Then, once you’ve mastered the concepts of Drafts and want to learn more the app and URL schemes, I recommend this article posted on MacStories yesterday by Alex Guyot (@The_Axx). In his words, he “will attempt to centralize all of the necessary information for a complete beginner to quickly and easily go from little to no prior knowledge of the subject to being able to understand and build their own complex workflows with Drafts and URL actions.” This one is a whopper of an article that I am looking forward to reading in more detail when time permits. I don’t use many URL schemes at the moment but might have to find some uses for these powerful tools.

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January 14, 2014

After deciding to break up with Omnifocus, I needed to find a good task management tool to replace it. I spent some time thinking about what I absolutely must have in a Getting Things Done (GTD) system, and decided on the five features listed below.

Interoperability between devices/systems – The new tool will ideally be accessible (from a browser or dedicated app) on all of my computers. I use many each day but most of my work is done on my iPhone and PC. I also utilize an iPad and a MacBook Pro from time to time. Lastly, my home computer – while getting less and less use over the past year – is an iMac. I operate from a number of platforms and the tool needs to be accessible from all or most of them. While it pains me to say it, PC compatibility is key because it’s what I use at work. Evernote is the classic example of a tool that meets the interoperability requirement because it runs on all the devices I’ve just mentioned.

Start dates – The ability to set a project to start at a later date is key for me. If I don’t need to start working on a project or a task, it should be invisible. I don’t even want to see it until the date or time that I’ve determined I should begin working on it. This helps keep me from becoming overwhelmed.

Sustainability – The company making the product must have a business model that I feel is sustainable over the long term. The information I will be putting into the system is valuable. I don’t want to dump it someplace that’s not going to be around in a few months.

Look, feel & usability – The tool needs to be well-designed and usable. I’m not interested in wasting time on apps or tools that haven’t been updated for iOS 7 or that are inefficient to use. I need a well-polished system that works smoothly and flawlessly.

Segregation & organization – It is essential that I be able to organize my projects in a manner that makes sense to me. I don’t want to mix my personal and work projects, for example, so segregation is important. The tool has to allow me as much flexibility as possible when it comes to organizing my life. Omnifocus had this feature nailed with its ability to create nested folders and projects.

With these five requirements in mind, I set out to find my new task management tool. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to find an app that met all five of my requirements as even some of the most popular task management apps are missing one or more features. I’ll explain my selection in the next post in this series.

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January 8, 2014

One year ago, I tried to become better organized and on top of my work by reading “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and using the Omnifocus (Mac, iPhone, iPad) task management system. Though I had a false start at the beginning of the year, I really hit my stride in March and have been using Omnifocus consistently since. I have been happy with the system but recently decided to move away from Omnifocus and switch to something else.

Why the change of heart? As with any breakup, it’s complicated. Much of my decision to switch was based on the fact that I use a PC at work. I do have a MacBook Pro available to me but I have become accustomed to using the PC as my main computer for 95% of my work (and I’m OK with that). Omnifocus is not available for Windows, nor does it have a web-based interface. This means that, for the past year, I’ve been inputting tasks into Omnifocus on my iPad, iPhone, or via the tasks portion of Outlook (using this method). This is fine for capturing what needs to be done and quickly getting it into my Omnifocus inbox. However, any sort of organizing or project-building has to be done on the iPhone or iPad and it has simply become too tedious. Even when using an external keyboard on the iPad, it’s just too slow. In fact, it is so slow that I think it has actually prevented me from more effectively planning my work. Put simply, I need a tool that is immediately at hand (preferably on my PC) that I can quickly use without having to transition to a different device.

I think Omnifocus makes great apps for iOS, but I have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of feature parity between the iPhone version of the app and the iPad version. For one, they are now drastically different because the iPhone app has been updated for iOS 7 and the iPad app has not. That’s not the deal-breaker for me though. The bigger problem is that the iPhone and iPad versions are not equal. They do not provide the same functionality. The iPad version provides the all-important review feature which allows me to quickly go through my projects and make sure nothing is slipping through the cracks. The iPhone version does not have this feature. Additionally, neither of the iOS apps allows me to create perspectives to view my work, but the Mac version does. This is incredibly frustrating, and I don’t see why all the features can’t exist in each version of the app. It almost seems that the OmniGroup is purposely hamstringing each iOS app so that a user with multiple devices has to purchase more than one version of the app.

A third problem is the cost of the entire suite of Omnifocus apps. I only have the iPhone and iPad versions which have set me back a total of $60. If I were to also use Omnifocus on the MacBook, I would be shelling out an additional $80. I understand that it costs money to build good apps (and even more money to make them all sync seamlessly), but $140 is expensive, especially when the company expects me to pay for the software again when an update comes out. Normally, I have no problem with this. But when the apps are this expensive, the costs add up. I’d be more comfortable with a subscription charge spread out over months and years.

Although I have long subscribed to the gospel of Omnifocus, as preached by smart people whose opinions I respect – like Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) and David Sparks (@macsparky) – I no longer feel that it is the right system for me and so I bid Omnifocus a fond adieu. All that being said, you never know when we might get back together again.

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January 6, 2014

Since the new year is upon us, now seems like a good time to write about some of the new habits – and the apps that helped me build them – that I have acquired over the past few months which I hope to continue in 2014.

At the start of the current school year, I installed a few habit-tracking apps on my iPhone (eventually settling on Habit List) and began tracking some things that I knew I should be doing like drinking more water, getting more sleep, and exercising. I’ve been most successful with drinking more water and less successful in getting more sleep and exercising. However, the simple fact that I am now tracking how often I do each of these three things has made me do all of them more. I know that a book has been written about the power of habit, but to see it actually work in my own life was, honestly, thrilling. An added benefit is that I enjoy tracking things like this and seeing my progress over time. It sates my desire for data. Finally, I was able to employ a few additional apps to help me build these habits.

After trying for several days in August to hydrate better, I found it hard to keep track of how much water I had drunk and how much I still needed to drink. I tried a few apps to solve this problem and ultimately settled on Tally (iPhone). It’s a simple, gesture-driven app for counting things and works perfectly for helping me see how many glasses of water I’ve consumed. I open the app, tap once for each glass of water, and close the app. Simple and effective.

My exercising habits changed over the past several months as I switched from using an elliptical in the morning to doing a seven minute workout. Both have their advantages but I found that the elliptical allowed me to go at a slow pace and not really push myself while the seven minute workout pits my own body weight against me and forces me to work harder. I feel a far greater sense of accomplishment after the seven minute workout than I do after spending time on the elliptical. There are tons of apps for iOS that can lead one through the seven minute workout and I tried most of them. I ultimately settled on The 7 Minute Workout (iPhone). It utilizes a pleasing female voice with a British accent to lead me through the workout, and that’s the key feature. Some of the other apps that are available look better, but I don’t intend to stare at my phone while planking so graphics are not a big deal to me. I’d rather let the app talk me through the workout and this app does that just fine.

Finally, for the past several weeks I’ve been journaling with Day One (Mac, iOS). This is a habit I plan to spend more time on in 2014, mostly because I have two little girls who are growing up fast. They do something every single day that fascinates, entertains, frustrates, or delights me and I have taken to writing these things down a few times each week for posterity. If I can stick with this new habit, I imagine that it will be fun to look back on as the years accumulate.

I never imagined that I’d be using my phone to help me with these habits, but I also can’t imagine successfully building these habits without the apps to help me to stay on track.  Technology can be a powerful motivator, at least for me.

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January 4, 2014

Here’s some excellent food for thought by @rands on this first weekend of the new year:

You’re… swimming in everyone else’s moments, likes, and tweets and during these moments of consumption you are coming to believe that their brief interestingness to others makes it somehow relevant to you and worth your time.

The fact that the frequency of these interesting moments appears to be ever-growing and increasingly easy to find does not change the fact that your attention is finite. Each one you experience, each one you consume, is a moment of your life that you’ve spent forever.

I highly recommend reading the entire post (which is just a few hundred words) about the importance of building things as opposed to just consuming the tiny moments that others share online. I can certainly relate to the “builder’s high” that the author discusses as I was lucky enough to have a few of those moments (like when I published my book) last year.

Here’s to all of us building more in 2014.

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December 30, 2013

It was a wonderful Christmas for me this year, as I received a number of gifts that appeal to the geek in me. Here are my initial thoughts on four things that I was delighted to receive this year.

Apple iPhone 5S Case

Since purchasing an iPhone 5S a few months ago, I’ve been using a cheap CaseCrown Lux Glider to keep it protected. It’s a great case for $8, especially when what I really wanted – Apple’s new leather 5S case – was a bit expensive at $39. It seemed ridiculous to spend that much on an iPhone case but not quite ridiculous enough to put on my Christmas list. I was pleased when I opened it on Christmas day and it is a definite improvement over my previous case.

The CaseCrown was thin but Apple’s case is, amazingly, even thinner. It still has a slight lip on the front which allows me to set it facedown on a table without scratching the screen. One upside I have found with this is that text selection and swipes from the left side of the screen are easier. This has the effect of making the screen seem bigger than it did with the old case. Apple’s case is made of black leather which provides a nice amount of grip and texture. It also protects more of my phone than the previous case because it covers the lock and volume buttons. This changes the feel of the buttons when clicked but in a pleasing way. Of course, the Apple case also comes embossed with the Apple logo on the back which is a nice touch. It’s far better than the silver CaseCrown text which was printed on the bottom of the old one. The only downside I’ve noticed so far is that the opening for the lightning port makes it tough, but not impossible, to plug in the Amazon Basics Lightning Cable I use in my car.

Though it is expensive, I would recommend this case. I couldn’t justify shelling out $39 for it but it sure made a great gift for me this Christmas.

Hazel

I’ve always wanted to try Hazel, an app that watches folders and automatically organizes files based on customizable rules. I had heard plenty about it on the Mac Power Users podcast (especially episodes #25 and #79) and am looking forward to putting it to work for me. It will come in handy for organizing photos, bills, and other files on my Mac.

Elma Leather Gloves

In the past, as a teacher, I lived close enough to my school that I was able to walk which meant that it was essential to have gloves that with capacitive fingers so that I could operate my iPod touch on the walk. I’ve gone through a few pairs of these over the years and none of them lasted very long. For several years now I’ve just worn regular leather gloves. This has been fine, but I do sometimes need to use my phone when I am out in the cold (during recess duty, for example) or when I first get in the car so I asked for some that had the capacitive fingers. I received these Elma Men’s Touch Screen Leather Gloves and in my brief tests they seem to work well with my iPhone. They also look nice and fit well.

G2 Pen

I am a big fan of Pilot’s G2 pens. They use a gel ink which writes smoothly and flawlessly every time. They also come in cheap plastic barrels which have clips that break off easily. When I heard that Pilot makes a “limited” metal edition of this pen for under $10, I immediately added it to my Christmas list. It was a great gift and I am enjoying the look (silver metallic), feel (weighted but not heavily), and build quality of this pen. I look forward to using it at school and it’s not so expensive that buying another one will break the bank if I lose it.

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