March 24, 2015 by jjackson39
The tools that I have chosen for my review are Zotero, Coffitivity, Freedom and Textal
Zotero has been an application that I found myself using intermittently in my academic career and the more dependent that I’ve become in it recently makes me wonder how I possibly kept track of sources before. Instead of trying to maintain e-mail subfolders of sources I’ve sent myself, or being beholden to a single annotated bibliography on a thumb drive I find myself being less hyper focused on the minutia of citation, which I happen to enjoy but realistically takes up too much of my time to be practical. Despite moving between LibreOffice and Microsoft Word depending on the computer I am using I have not had any issues with Zotero failing to accurately transfer footnotes between programs or any other hiccups that tend to present themselves with many computer applications. The ability to log-in and use the program at school or download the standalone product on any PC gives me peace of mind wherever I happen to be when I need to find or save sources. More than any of the other tools I’ve used it has the broadest use outside of the classroom setting, since it so effortlessly works with the programs that any PC already has and is simple to introduce to non-users in a collaborative environment at work or in a volunteer setting where many individuals may be required to add new sources to a project in stages. Also since there are no serious competitors this tool is likely to be familiar to anyone who has a background in a research discipline.
When browsing for tools to utilize for the semester this app caught my eye for several reasons. The first being my personal appreciation of the ambient and soundscape genres of music, which I have utilized heavily to push through writing sessions both epic and run-of-the mill for most of my academic career. Coffitivity is based around scientific studies which have shown positive creativity cognition gains for individuals who utilize ambient sounds, such as the background noise of a coffee shop when writing or doing other tasks. Personally I find that I almost always have to utilize tools such as this to help calm myself and direct all attention to the task at hand. In addition to the website version of the tool, Coffitivity offers apps for Android and iOS so that the benefits can be gained anywhere. Three choices of sounds are available for free on the site: a quite “Morning Murmur” which is helpful to calm you down as you write, a “Lunchtime Lounge” with more dynamic sounds that may help you on late-night writing sessions and a “University Undertones” meant to simulate a college commons area which I found to be the least useful as it contains several distracting sounds that inevitably detract from the tools purpose. The obvious downsides are the small number of options that are available without subscribing to the paid ‘Premium’ version and my own personal desire that the various ambient themes had levels of complexity that you could toggle with as is an option with other ambient programs and the sound machine that I personally use on a nightly basis. Overall however the tool is a legitimate option for any late night writing endeavor and with further development could become a required part of any project for me in the future.
After browsing several tools, playing around with features and consequently being sent on non-academic tangents, I decided some form of outside control to help me focus when faced with so many deadlines this semester for school, work and personal projects. I admittedly balked at paying ten dollars for a product which I felt was little more than artificial self-discipline in app form. After several less than productive writing sessions I decided that for the cost of the Freedom tool I would likely make the money back in productive work and leisure time fairly quickly and I was correct. Setting the timer even for brief, fifteen and thirty minute periods resulted in significant chunks of writing being done which often resulted in further productivity after the timer expired. This tool can easily be subverted by restarting the PC, but the personal embarrassment at having to go to such lengths just to fall into an all too familiar loop of pointless browsing led me to never contemplate restarting. Our ever present cell phones also provide a way to subvert the usefulness of this program but the useful nature of the tool will likely lessen ones desire to find other ways to distract from the task at hand. After some period of utilizing Freedom I imagine that the useful habits that it promotes would become habit forming and I look forward to the day that I can uninstall it without seeing a drop in productivity.
The most abstract of the tools that I used was one that has an interesting premise but have personally not been able to utilize in a fashion that I find useful outside of amusing myself with the results. Textal is a free app that is a research project of University College London. The app can take text from any website address, book or even read Twitter in real time and create word clouds based on the word frequency of the source. Playing around with the app is really intuitive, enjoyable and I appreciated how simple it is to customize the word clouds appearance and share with the researchers or others. I could see this tool being useful to a blogger who wants to make a fun post about how people are talking about a historical site or neighborhood. The issue that arises with Textal is if you are using sources such as Twitter to generate clouds it is often difficult as there are multiple Grant Park’s that exist worldwide and the results are skewed accordingly. With the right source text or word search I feel that Textal could be harnessed at least in some small scale to learn or present information about peoples attitudes towards a historic asset.