My PhD Digital Toolkit


As a technologist, I’m always on the look out for tools to make my life easier. I particularly like using ‘dead time’ like travelling productive. Before starting the PhD I looked at how I worked best and tried to eliminate excuses for getting on with things. With me excuses like “This chair isn’t comfortable” or “I can’t find information fast enough to hold an idea in my head” can be destructive to productivity.

In terms of hardware, I bought a new desktop 6 months ago. I even ripped out the CPU and case fans and replaced them with silent ones to reduce noise. And I bought a laptop tray to make working on comfortable chairs/sofas more feasible when I get sick of sitting at a desk. Actually, I’ve been experimenting with standing at my desk, but that’s probably another blog post. I also bought a handheld scanner for £30 which I’ve already used to scan selected pages from library books and documents that have been given to me in hard copy.
But it has mostly been software. Some of it is for my tablet (Google Nexus 7 inch), my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S3) and for my desktop and laptop (both Windows 7 64). Being an Android and Chrome user, Play store apps and Chrome apps work well with my general Google ecosystem. Most of which are free but I did spend money on the following:
  • Evernote premium: no limit on uploads, offline notes, search with PDFs and no distracting flashing ads. £35 per year
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for structuring, writing and revising. I haven’t used it that much yet, but I know I’m going to need this for a thesis. £29
  • ezPDF Reader: A very flexible PDF reader for Android with good annotating functionality, night mode and voice reading. £2.50
  • Simplemind Pro: A mindmapping (desktop and Android app) which can sync to Dropbox. £3.76 (app) £31.55 (desktop software)
Everything else is free or a trial version.
Dropbox is a no brainer. It sync files across computers and devices and makes the USB stick redundant.  I have 50gb space, most of which came for free with my Android devices but I’ll probably shell out when that space expires. It’s become too useful to me. I also use it in conjunction with other applications. For example, Mendeley. Although I will be watching it like a hawk since it was bought by Elsevier, I can’t get over the usefulness of Mendeley sorting out my mess of articles into neat folders and renamed files. I have set up a system whereby I store both my PDFs and the Mendeley database files in Dropbox which allows for me to access the up-to-date files on any device. It was very important to me that any annotations I made on my tablet synced back seamlessly. It can be very frustrating searching for the version of an article where you’ve made annotations. This system can get unstuck if I accidentally have Mendeley open on two devices and Dropbox starts to create conflicting versions. It can take a while to sort out and I know I’m using Mendeley in a way which is not supported by the company. For me, the benefits outweigh the risks. Let me know if you’d like more information on doing this (it involves doing a little bit of register editing).
Reading is a big part of any PhD so I’ve got a few tools which help me reduce my excuses not to do it. On the desktop I use Adobe Acrobat Pro (an old version) and use highlighting and commenting tools. For my full note taking I use Evernote with the name of the article/book for title and ‘reading notes’ for a tag. You could just use the free Adobe Reader for highlighting and commenting but I like being able to use the character recognition tools for my scanned documents. Having all text searchable is invaluable.
I’ve experimented with some fast reading apps (both Chrome and Android). These  flash one word at a time at a pre-defined pace in order to train you out of ‘sub-vocalising’ and therefore, in theory, you can read more quickly. While I find them good for light reading like blog posts or news, I don’t think I’ll be using them for scholarly reading. I am quite a fast reader already and sometimes I find myself re-reading academic texts because I’ve read too quickly to completely understand. To slow down my reading (and to drown out the noise of the driver’s radio on the bus to Glasgow), I sometimes read while simultaneously listening to the text being read. I’d recommend trying Ivona TTS (text to speech) which can be installed on a smartphone. It can read back any text in a compatible app (such as ezPDF Reader) in a reasonably human voice.
For task management, I have been using Nozbe task management Android app and desktop app. It’s got a nice interface but my trial has expired and I’ll probably not pay a subscription. I’ll think I will return to Google Tasks and use 3rd party apps to access them on my mobile devices. I’ve never completely nailed using task managers. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a bunch of tasks at the bottom of my list that never get done which does my self esteem no good. On my desktop I use Sticky Notes to have small chunk of info readily accessible. I’ve been using them for my Athens login for the past month.
For time management and motivation I’ve been using Rescue Time which is both a desktop and mobile app. It monitors what you are doing. You can categorise activities (Mendeley = v.productive, Facebook=v.distracting) and you get a score at the end of the day, overall time and a breakdown of how you spent you time. You can compare days and try gaming yourself to do better. There’s a premium version but I’m finding the freebie does enough for me. So far today I’ve been online for nearly 8 hours, 76% which was productive, which is pretty good going for me. For the times I need to get my head down, I use the Clockwork Tomato Pomodoro app on my phone which switches it to airplane mode for 25 minutes, then rings a bell for a 5 minute break. It has a lovely interface and records your stats. It’s quite satisfying to see those purple bars add up on my weekly calendar. As with all these things though, it’s only useful if you use it honestly.
Finally, there have been a few reports lately about the effect of using a screen before going to sleep at night and how exposure to blue light is detrimental to falling asleep. Coincidently I have been using f.lux for a few years on my desktop. I used it originally because I dislike having a bright white screen when using artificial light. But it turns out that f.lux is perfect for warming up those harsh blue tones. It changes the colour on your screen subtly at sunrise and sunset. I heard a review for Twilight for Android and realised it did the same thing, so I have that running on my phone and tablet. It has a distinct red hue but it’s easy to turn off if I wanted to see something in truer colours. It’s a shame I can’t scientifically prove that they’ve helped me get to sleep quicker, as I think I’m pretty tired most nights anyway.
And on the subject of getting to sleep there is one other digital tool, though not directly related to doing the PhD, it helps me relax: audio books. I subscribe to Audible and fall asleep every night listening to a book. I don’t really feel I can afford to pick up a book for pleasure time-wise any more but I find audio books a great way to fill in some dead ‘pre-sleep’ time and it takes my mind away from all the things I need to do. I’d recommend Proust’s In Remberence of Time Past, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Joyce’s Ulysses.
I’d love to hear about any other tools people use to help with their studies.

Five days to go to my PhD and already I’m procrastinating

I have 5 days to go to starting my PhD. And, rather unbelievable as it sounds, I’ve already been procrastinating. The summer was going to be a time for me to get ahead in my reading: get a good grip on the basics of what I need to know before the pressure of the 3-year clock starts. But I have managed to waste quite a bit of time thinking about the logistics and practicalities of doing the PhD. What should my study set-up at home be like? Where will I be doing my reading? How will I take notes while I’m reading? (As a techie, this question generated hours of excited thoughts: reading on a tablet while writing on a Bluetooth keyboard connected to a second screen…or should I get a get a laptop? Ah, that means it’s time to drool over laptop specs.) The software I should use: Evernote, Dropbox, Mendeley, Scrivener, mindmaping apps, Pomodoro-type apps, Rescue Time and many, many more. All of this was far more enticing than confronting the great edifice called “Everything I don’t know about my topic but should”.
Then there are the blogs and books about doing a PhD with their seductive titles and time-sapping content. At some point I’ve got to stop reading about productivity and just do it.
As a result of this reading, I think I can stab a guess at a few things that will happen over the next 3 years:
  • I will forget that I already know stuff and have been a professional in this area for years and begin to believe that my student status means I know nothing.
  • Anxiety about new areas for me, such as methods and methodology, will stifle my ability to understand, or even worse, my ability to perceive that I understand.
  • I will worry that I have missed something.
  • I will worry that my area is too wide.
  • I will worry that my ideas are too shallow.
  • I will worry that I don’t understand my supervisors’ advice and get the wrong end of the stick.
  • I will cease to see the connections between my reading and my research.
  • I will begin to hate my own writing.

I have started some reading but I’m picking away at things and not really sure how best to organise my notes and cross-reference things. I know I have to start writing. The bottom line is I haven’t even started yet and it feels overwhelming.
So from my reading and previous experience of myself as a student, I have collated a random list to refer back to when things get rough. It’s my PhD rescue remedy:
  • Write all notes and ideas down.
  • Write anything, even a blog post to get rid of the useless thoughts that are getting in the way of real work.
  • Read or write for 3 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
  • Read or write for 25 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
  • Never question your ability to do a PhD. You were not born ‘able’ or ‘not able’, you have to make it happen yourself. Don’t let negative thoughts about your so-called “intrinsic self” set limits on what you can do.
  • Confusion is a natural state. It means you are learning and changing.
  • When in doubt, talk about it. I’m lucky to have a PhD veteran in my partner. Use him.
  • Be careful not to get too caught up in the details, whether it’s tagging your references or cataloguing minutiae. Be careful of sapping time activities.
  • That said, there will be time to go down some rabbit holes. Just make sure they are worthy ones that contribute to your knowledge about the wider area of your topic.
  • Set deadlines and chunk up your tasks. Your plans and timetable will change, but just keep being realistic.
  • Be mindful of what your head is trying to do to muck this up.
  • Finally, from How to tame your PhD by Inger Mewburn, “If you realise your will is flagging, your inner marketing department has to call in pizza for the engineering department and get them doing overtime.” In other words, do what you can to get it done.

Youth Theatre and Technology-Enhanced Learning

Last night I attended a reunion of an organisation I was part of in my late teens to early twenties. The ethos of  Dublin Youth Theatre and what it gave me and countless other young people remains with me and I would argue it is a continual influence on my work, despite a career shift away from the arts and theatre.

It is easier to describe DYT as what it is not. It is not a stage school. It does not ‘train’ young people in becoming actors. But equally it does not treat theatre as a superficial “bit of a laugh”. Theatre is the medium through which DYT enables young people from all backgrounds to find their voices and express themselves in a supportive but, crucially, critically aware environment. DYT also creates superb theatre to watch. And the voices people find are not always in performing. Mine wasn’t. I was a playwright and a director. I went on to direct professionally and set up and ran my own theatre company.

Theatre is an old art form. Learning through digital technology is not, unless you include counting on your fingers as “digital technology” I guess. But when I first read about affective learning having higher impact on memory and social constructivism’s role in personal knowledge building, it all resonated with my experiences as a theatre practitioner. Theatre is a collective experience and being there with other members of an audience creates a dynamic that is unique to that performance.Yet members of that same audience can come away with different interpretations and responses to the play. So it is with a student’s experience of online teaching. There is a line to tread between giving the individual freedom of choice and building a community of learners who feed into each other’s learning, just as an audience can feed itself when, for example, laughter becomes contagious.

And the parallel goes beyond seeing learners as ‘the audience’. At the very heart of DYT was an inherent respect for young people and what they had to say. Paddy O’Dwyer, the founder of DYT, last night put it perfectly when he said “every young person is seen as an artist”. That is to say, a contributor with something to say and a unique voice in which to say it. And, most importantly, they will be listened to.

Is that not a way to view learners; as artists, each of whom have their own history, voice and contribution to make? Self-expression can lead to self-actualisation and there is no reason why an online environment could not be the medium. Theatre, like the academic world, has its conventions which, more or less, should be observed. But ultimately enabling learners to gain confidence and find their voices online gives so much more than mere knowledge in a subject area.

In the grand scheme of things, theatre does not often feel like it is doing truly important work, however the work of Dublin Youth Theatre and other youth theatres with a similar approach really is transforming the lives of people. I hope, in a some small way, my work in enabling staff and students to engage with technology-enhanced learning, is also having a transformative effect.

How can you know what’s worth researching in technology enhanced learning?

By this stage I have learnt by experience that hitching your wagon to the latest shiny new technology as an opportunity for technology enhanced learning can leave me with egg on my face. I’ll spare my blushes and won’t name here what, in the past, I’ve championed as the next big thing. In recent years I have even become sceptical about the merits of most new innovations and new products as I have seen those around me get caught up in what I perceive as fashion trends. I remember watching the launch of the iPad live online and was dubious about its merits. Later other, wiser than me, people articulated how it was essentially a device for consuming rather than creating content, so it was limited as device for learning. The addition of a camera and improved text input has changed this a little. I still watch the debate about tablets for learning with interest but I’m not sure I am ready to jump in.
So what are the areas of specialization in technology-enhanced learning am I interested in? What is worth researching in depth that won’t be out of fashion next year? Here’s my list for today (it will, of course, be different next week):
  • Curriculum design for online learning – How can lecturers design, develop, teach and assess fully online courses? How can theory and research inform instructional design?
  • Supporting student reflection and independent learning – How can TEL help students become reflective learners and can social networking support this? (By the way, I haven’t come across the term “independent learning” in a while – is it out of fashion?)
  • Social tools for researchers – Has the uptake of social networking increased at all for researchers and research students? Can these tools help increase collaboration, sharing and impact on isolation?
  • Institutions’ responses to disruptive innovations such as MOOCs – Can this breakdown of higher education’s “marketplace” be an opportunity to reassess and refocus the purpose of university education?
And yes, I am aware of the zeitgeist-yness of MOOCs as a topic but open access to information has been around for a while now and MOOCs appear to be the next step in a ongoing push for open access.

The role of resistance in learning

I’m reading Contemporary Theories of Learning (2009), edited by Knud Illeris which is a series of essays about learning by theorists. As usual with a stimulating book like this I have to put it down every few pages and sort out my own thoughts.

In Illeris’ own chapter, he talks about barriers to learning which break-down essentially into those barriers which are a defence and those which are resistance. It is the latter that I am most interested in i.e those which is caused by the learning situation itself because “often when one does not just accept something, the possibility of learning something significantly new emerges.”

As an advisor to lecturing staff on the use of technology-enhanced learning, I have had experiences where colleagues have resisted or even rejected changing their approach to teaching. But now I come to think of it, some of those who had the most defensive reactions are the ones who have travelled furthest in adopting technology. I know the theory that involving emotions can aid learning, but negative emotions? I had only thought before that antithetical reactions to my training or advice would lead to entrenched views but maybe together with staff who react badly we can create, synthesise, something new?

So would it be possible to deliberately manufacture resistance in, say, a staff training session and what would that look like? How about asking them to discuss a provocative statement such as “In the future teachers will be obsolete”. Perhaps this is a bit loose but it has a challenging emotion connection for most lecturers.