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Digital Tools Review


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.


  1. cdavis132 says:

    I too looked into using the application Freedom at one time, but didn’t want to spend the money for it. Stayfocusd is a Google chrome extension that is free and does serves basically the same needs. I have found it to be very helpful over the past few months using it.
    I also find your review on Textal very interesting. I haven’t heard of this particular app, but giving my experience in blogging I think it would be interesting to use it, to see how people perceive a particular historical website or blog.

  2. chuber1 says:

    John Joseph-
    I am really looking forward in trying out Coffitivity and Textal. I can see Textal being very interesting to use at the beginning of a project, when you are working on generating a research question around a topic. It would be interesting to see how this software can be used to connect topics and ideas that at first seem disparate. I am also interested in trying out Coffivity. I like to have background noise when I work and very often find myself working in coffeeshops and bars in order to have the background noise I find stimulating. Being able to recreate this sonic environment during late night writing session will be very useful. It will proably keep me from wasting a good deal of time in trying to find the right music to write to.

  3. Adina Langer says:


    I am also particularly intrigued by Coffitivity. I checked out the link to the scientific study that shows how productivity is improved with the introduction of background noise.

    I love to work outside whenever I have the opportunity, but sometimes weather or light-levels can detract from this experience. I wonder if there’s a similar app for that.

  4. Julie says:

    I really liked that your review used maybe some unconventional digital tools. I never really thought about how background noise is in itself a research tool. Living in the middle of Midtown with construction, sirens, and traffic, I think Coffitivity would be a great resource to try. Thanks for sharing!

  5. nsakas1 says:

    I think it is safe to say that we are all hooked on Zotero. If you are not then you are just missing out. However, I am also interested in the Coffitivity and Freedom. I usually have trouble getting focused and staying focused when it comes to completing tasks. Having a personal time clock that I can set would probably help me staying on task. I also have a great deal of anxiety that only seems to get worse with assignment piling up. Having a tool to offer a calming presence would also be very helpful. Thank you for your post, I look forward to trying some of these tools.

  6. kdaly3 says:

    Does Textal only work with Twitter? I’d be curious to see how this works, but for people who don’t use Twitter, it would be interesting to expand the platform to include other types of social media, if possible. I’ve also been interested in Freedom, but like you I don’t want to spend the money; my alternative is going somewhere where I can’t access wifi, but that can be a pain if I hadn’t already planned on going there; I’ll be interested to try Caroline’s suggestion with Stayfocused. I’m also interested in trying Coffitivity (and everyone else also seems to), as my ability to work seems to be heightened by surrounding, but unobtrusive, background noise.

    • jjackson39 says:

      Textal works for books and some online documents if you provide an exact web address. I’m still debating the usefulness of the app but find it fascinating none the less.
      Ambient noise is vital to me accomplishing anything now days, I could offer suggestions all day, but Brian Eno’s early ambient albums are among the best and easiest to find.

  7. jeldredge1 says:

    Ooh! The Coffitivity and Freedom tools might be really helpful to me since I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD. I’ve really been struggling with workload and time management during grad school, and I’ve had to relearn and reevaluate how my brain works and what my personal obstacles are to learning and production. I have always needed some background noise in order to concentrate, a lot of people (family included) never understood this. I usually have the TV on and tuned to CNN for the ambient noise. Coffitivity might be even better, is it only for PC? I really should try Freedom, but I have been reluctant to only try short bursts of work (30 mins.) and then a shorter break. I try to power myself through a whole assignment and then break, but my attention definitely wanders… Maybe I could get done faster through shorter bursts of work/ break?

    • jjackson39 says:

      There’s actually an iOS/Android app for Coffitivity as well with the same features. I have a lot of ambient music on my phone so I use it less often in that environment but it would definitely work well on the go.
      I have struggled with productivity as well and it seems that the times I do work are as important as the time or duration. After years of writing papers late into the night I’ve discovered that early morning work with a good nights sleep is infinitely more productive for me. Hope you find something that works for you!

      • jeldredge1 says:

        Thanks, I find that for creative projects- I’m a night owl, and ideas come best to me then. But for writing, being in a semi private place like a nook at the library and working during the early afternoon is best. I just can’t function on a high intellectual level early in the morning- but good sleep is key, especially the older you get.

  8. Susan Prillaman says:

    In terms of being able to focus on studying, my problem is fatigue. After spending eight or nine hours researching property rights, I am whipped when I get home. One thing that helps me is a 30 minute sound wave program called “High Focus.” Listening to it allows me to relax and focus my mind on the tasks at hand. Where I think Coffitivity could help is at my office where I sit near the break room, itself a noisy place. I want to see if replacing random noise with designed audio reduces distractions and improves focus.

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