You can read the first part of this article here.
So in the first part of this series, I spoke about my history of using computers and other technology, as well as sharing some information about the amount of data I have created over the past five or six years. In this section, I'm going to go in to more specifics of what I currently use, and why I use it.
Firstly, I finished the last piece saying that I would explain why the amount of data I have created for school has dropped so much. Here's how: Plaintext. Almost everything I write now is written using plaintext files and Markdown, which lets me have platform agnostic, space efficient files that still have strong formatting. The smaller size of such files also helps when they are being synced using Dropbox. I used to do most of my assignments in Pages, but now that I don't do any Humanities subjects, I have little need for the features of a word processor. The files created by such programs is also much larger. For example, one of my english essays in plaintext format is 9 KB, while the same writing as a
.pages document is 321 KB. While this still isn't a huge file, when you have hundreds of files it builds up. In fact the Pages version is over 3000% larger, which would make what was a 680 KB folder into a 24 MB folder.
To create these plaintext files, I've tried numerous different editors, both on iOS and OS X. I'm currently using Elements (iPhone), Byword (iPad), and the newly released Ulysses 3 (OS X). I also occasionally use Mou, Folding Text, Textastic, and Marked on my MacBook Pro.
While the smaller files are nice, the biggest reason for switching to plaintext is the future proofing it gives me. I am almost certainly always going to be able to open a
.txt file, no matter what platform I may end up using, so I will be able to access all my notes. Other formats are proprietary, and thus more likely to become obsolete or incompatible with different operating systems, which would be somewhat of an annoyance if anything important was stored in those documents. My Dad just recently had to go through the process of converting old AppleWorks and ClarisWorks documents into PDFs or Pages documents because support for the older file types was dropped in OS X Lion. While this may not seem like too much of a hassle, when there are hundreds of documents it gets tedious.
When I moved to plaintext it was out of the aim to have the simplest, easiest to use method of writing and taking notes. When combined with Markdown, not only is plaintext simple, lightweight and future proof, but it gains powerful markup features while retaining readability.
While using plaintext has been an evolution of my process of taking notes and writing assignments, It hasn't by a long way had the biggest impact on my workflow and how all the technology I use interacts.
Getting Dropbox in 2009 fundamentally changed how I dealt with storing and using my files on a daily basis. I have almost every document I might need available, even if something goes wrong with my computer, which is great piece of mind when dealing with assessment work. This is the simplest level at which Dropbox functions for me — as a close to instant backup of what I'm working on. However, shared folders have been the greatest change to my workflow. I can easily share files with not only my classmates, but also my teachers. From beta testing a friend's SDD assignment which he put in our shared folder, to submitting a music assignment through the shared folder I have with my Music teacher, Dropbox makes it easier and faster to deal with information.
Dropbox and plaintext have been two of the biggest changes I've made my self, but I have also been impacted by various choices made by my school. In recent years, the greatest impact has been my school's move towards the cloud, and BYOD/BYOT (Bring Your Own Device/Technology) which has changed the way we communicate with and learn from our teachers.
The basis for this decision seems to be an aim to replicate the changes seen outside the school environment, which perhaps highlights how much of a gap there is between traditional teaching methods and the ways in which the rest of society has moved on, so to speak. In terms of the BYOD program, not much has changed for me, since I have been using a device for around 5 years in my classes. What it has meant though, is that teachers are integrating technology into the classroom further, because it is now an expectation that all of the students have a device on which they can complete any set work.
This often involves collaboration between students and teachers. Facilitating such collaborative learning is the school's introduction of Google Apps for its many different purposes. Personally, I don't use any of Google's services if I can avoid it, mainly due to the fact that they are an advertising company, which doesn't bode particularly well for privacy. I use a number of other services that I find to be better for various reasons.
Despite my distrust as such for Google, many of their services do work quite well in education. In particular, Google Docs has been excellent for collaborative work in various classes. In Entertainment Industry, we have used Google Docs extensively, for study notes as well as quizzes created by our teacher. While this component of Google’s online services which is now a part of Google Drive is fantastic, other components are less so. I prefer to use Dropbox for storing and syncing my files between my computers, not that I would store personal files in a school account anyway, but this lessens the usefulness of Google Drive for me. The way in which Google has tried to straddle the offline and online use of files doesn’t work well for me, and my drive seems to be a convoluted mess. I can’t easily preview or edit files offline, and depending how they’ve been shared I may not even be able to sync them to my computer. As far as I am concerned that is completely pointless, and creates a stupidly overwrought workflow unless you stick with an entirely web based solution. And I can’t do that. Unless someone makes versions of Sibelius and Logic that work in a browser. Which isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Clearly, there are benefits and weaknesses to using completely cloud based solutions for certain applications. I like using native applications because they are more stable, faster, look better, and are more integrated than web apps. Using a service such as Dropbox as the backend for native apps, whether it is on iOS or OS X is my preferred method of syncing data between platforms, simply because it lets me experience the benefits of the better user experience of native apps, and syncing of cloud apps. While this method makes real time collaboration, a la Google Docs difficult, this single use case is not common enough to warrant switching to web apps entirely.
While I dislike some of the minutiae of the direction my school has taken, There are other decisions that have been excellent. The connection of 100Mbps fibre internet to handle the increased use of technology across the school has been a great decision. The WiFi network across the school has also been upgraded, both in terms of coverage and quality of connection. This coupled with the new fibre connection means that every classroom has a strong connection to fast internet, which is a huge improvement over the paltry connection we used to have, and ensures that internet speed is not a limiting factor for the use of technology in the classroom.
There are points of friction between the choices I’ve made and the decisions of the school, but for the most part they coexist happily, without hassle. I’m always reassessing what I use, in fact, I actually started using a new app (Ulysses 3) during the process of writing this article. Because of that I may well write again on this topic if I make any significant changes to the way I work.