February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Enablers: Apps that free you to work anywhere

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From doing research and taking notes to crafting a blog post and sharing photos, apps help me get the job done no matter where I am. These handy tools in the practical vein serve double duty in supporting the day-to-day work of librarians and educators as well as the activities of students, both in and out of school. And there sure are a lot of choices out there.

Having made it somewhat of a mission to find the best ones, I present the following productivity apps as my picks for taking care of business on the go.

Writing and Research Apps

Composing blog posts, notes, outlines, even formal research documents are all possible from a smartphone or tablet. You just need to arm yourself with the right apps.

SLJ1109w_APPS_WPress(Original Import)Blogging with WordPress

Anyone with a WordPress blog will appreciate the companion app, which lets you write and update posts, and check in on comments and stats remotely. While the app (available for iOS, Android, and Blackberry devices) doesn’t offer every feature of the Web-based WordPress dashboard, the iOS and Android versions include a number of functions that make it easy to post and maintain your blog wherever you are. These include drafting, publishing, adding media, reviewing and moderating comments, and viewing stats.

It’s easy to link the app to one or more WordPress blog accounts—whether or not its hosted on the WordPress.com site or on one’s own server. Any activity that you do within the app is immediately available in the software’s Web-based dashboard. This ease of access makes the WordPress app a great tool for bloggers who, let’s say, draft a post at home and want to revisit it once they get to work. Or perhaps a brilliant idea pops into your head while you’re away from your desk—simply enter the notes on your smartphone using the WordPress app and refine the post later via the full site on the web or within the app.

Journaling with Momento

SLJ1109w_APPS_Momento(Original Import)Imagine having a diary accessible 24/7, yet completely secure from prying eyes. That would be tween bliss, wouldn’t it? The Momento journaling app makes it all possible.

No need to hide the diary and key under a mattress or in a far corner of a closet. Momento (iOS only; $2.99) safeguards your content with a digital passcode and makes it easy to add photos as well as social network posts to chronicle every significant event.

A snap to set up, Momento includes a variety of ways to view and add content. The interface is fairly intuitive, using many of the same conventions found in other apps. In calendar mode, you can click on a date to see all of the day’s posts. Or scroll day by day through journal entries in the agenda view. Add a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Foursquare, or blog feed to the app, and any time you post on one of those social sites it will automatically appear as an entry in Momento. You can also add tags for events, people, places, and images by clicking the tag icon in the bottom button bar. Click on the paper and pencil in the top right corner to start a new entry.

While Momento is designed for the iPhone, it scales well on an iPad. There’s a flaw, however: you can’t sync a Momento diary between devices. So you can’t, for example, record your thoughts at an event on an iPhone and be able to access that entry on an iPad when you return home so you can revise and add content. It’s possible, however, to export and import content from one device to another, but that’s a lot of extra steps in order to keep copies of the same journal on two devices.

Citing with EasyBib and QuickCite

SLJ1109w_APPS_EasyBib(Original Import)Scan a book’s barcode using a mobile device camera with either EasyBib or QuickCite and voilà, a citation is created in the format of your choosing. EasyBib uses the OCLC database to retrieve citations, while QuickCite uses a selection of online databases to build a citation. Both apps generate citations in MLA, APA, and Chicago formats. EasyBib is only available for Apple devices, QuickCite for both Apple and Android platforms.

There are other important differences. With EasyBib (compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, requires iOS 4.0 or later) you can scan barcodes one after another in order to build a bibliography. Once the list is complete, you can email it to yourself or share it with others. On QuickCite (Android ($1.01) and iOS (99 cents) devices running version 4.0 or later), you can’t build a citation list within the app, and each scan is emailed individually to the address set in the app settings. With EasyBib, it’s possible to change the citation format after a scan is made—not so with QuickCite. The EasyBib app also enables you to upload the bibliographic information to an EasyBib account once the citations are received in email.

Notetaking with Evernote

SLJ1109w_APPS_evernote(Original Import)For many digital workers, the note-taking platform of choice is Evernote (the app works with Android, Blackberry, and idevices running iOS 3 and higher). It’s used for a wide variety of purposes, from taking photos of business cards to create a digital rolodex, to recording notes for a research project while reading articles and books. Entries are tagged and saved in “notebooks” (Evernote’s term for folders). An added advantage is that the app allows for syncing between platforms and devices.

Offering many of the same features as Momento (reviewed previously), Evernote could even be used to keep a journal. But the app is capable of much more. One parent volunteer in Oklahoma City, for example, is using Evernote to create a database of evidence for the school debate team. Evernote can also be used collaboratively, as notebooks can be shared. Students working together can add and revise notes related to research and project planning and organize them without having to meet face to face outside of school.

Evernote’s abundance of features might make it a bit less intuitive; it takes reading the instructions and some practice to get the most out of the utility. The onscreen instruction, predicting user questions during the notetaking process, is a helpful feature. Looking for how to add a notebook? Simply tap on that feature and an on-screen instruction appears.

Either new images or ones stored on the device can be included during notetaking. You can also incorporate audio, such as an interview or clip of a discussion. But you’ll need to mind the size of attachments. Adding audio or image files may quickly put you over your storage limit in both free and premium accounts.

Apps for Media Creation

Who would have thought that making movies on the small screen of an iPhone would be something that wasn’t just possible but also easy to accomplish and fun to do? I certainly didn’t until I tried out Animoto and Splice.

Moviemaking with Animoto and Splice

SLJ1109w_APPS_Animoto(Original Import)Anyone who’s familiar with Animoto on the Web will feel right at home with the app version of the popular video-creation site (for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, iOS 4.1 or later). The idea is exactly the same: select images on your device, add some music and text, and let Animoto turn it into a quality production. The ease of use makes it an appealing choice for creating videos that can easily be shared with others via email and social networks.

With Splice (available for devices with cameras running iOS 4; $3.99), the creator has full control over the moviemaking experience. It might take a little more time to get the hang of, but those interested in shooting video on an iPhone and editing it on your handset will probably find Splice worth the effort.

After capturing video on your phone, open up the Splice program and select your settings. These include selecting either HD or SD; the type of transitions to use between clips; and the layout (portrait or landscape). You can also choose to have a border around your film. Then, go to the library on your phone and select the clips you’d like to turn into a movie.

Once that’s accomplished, the true editing capabilities of the app come into play: cropping, trimming, and adjusting the speed of the video clip. There’s an option to clone a clip as well as add text between clips. Unfortunately, text can’t be inserted over a clip. Along with editing the video, it’s also possible to edit the narration. This includes being able to insert music files stored on your phone, as well as tunes and sound effects from the Splice library. A few pieces of music and sound effects are available with the initial purchase of Splice; more can be purchased for an extra fee.

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When movies created with Splice are exported, they’re added to the iPhone library, making it easy to email the video, upload it to YouTube, or send as a video message. Students could turn video of a class field trip or a class project into a movie, which could then be made available to parents, teachers, and other members of the community.

While not as full-featured as iMovie for the iPad2 and iPhone, those looking for something a bit less expensive will find Splice worth investigating.


Photosharing is popular with kids and adults alike. Let these apps inspire you to try infusing images into a library or classroom project.

Socializing with Instagram

SLJ1109w_APPS_Instagram(Original Import)The world, it seems, has gone Instagram crazy. The concept behind the hugely popular app is quite simple: jazz up your iPhone photos using cool filters. Simply open Instagram (compatible with devices using iOS 3.1.2 or higher), select a photo, and then a filter. Maybe you want your photo to look vintage, à la 1970. There’s a filter for that. Or perhaps the burnt-edge look is more your style—select the toaster filter and it’s done.

But it’s the sharing function that really put Instagram over the top in terms of popularity. Once you’ve filtered a photo, it’s easy to distribute it to friends via social sites, including Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Foursquare. And a message can easily be embedded with the image using the captioning feature.

The ability to play with your photos and Instagram’s ease of use, along with its social features, make it a good choice for promoting what’s going on in your library for kids and teens. Having a teen advisory meeting? Have the kids snap some shots of themselves at work, add filters, and post them to the library’s social network pages. In a classroom discussion of visual literacy, have students filter photos with the application and discuss how the mood of an image and its message is affected by the manipulation. The kids will likely want to share these Instagrammed shots, too.

Analyzing Images with WordFoto

SLJ1109w_APPS_WordFoto(Original Import)WordFoto takes captions to another level. Simply take a photo with your iPhone or grab one from your phone’s image library, click on the text button, and select from text you’ve entered into the app or from the word sets that come with WordFoto (requires iOS 4.0 or higher; $1.99). Then choose from a variety of text styles included in the app, or create your own, and then fine tune the image and text to get everything just right. Once it’s to your liking, save the captioned image to your photo library, post it on Facebook, or email it.

This takes the word cloud concept in a whole new direction. With a dead-simple interface, young children can use the app with a parent, teacher, or librarian as a way to begin describing images or even to spell. Older children, tweens, and teens, will appreciate being able to finesse their words and images in order to express their ideas just the way they want.

Editing with PhotoPad

SLJ1109w_APPS_PhotoPad(Original Import)I came across PhotoPad one day when I needed to edit an image on my iPhone and didn’t want to go through the steps of transferring it to my computer. I wasn’t sure I would find a tool that was easy to use while at the same time inexpensive and full-featured enough to meet my needs. To my surprise, PhotoPad (requires iOS 4.0 or higher)fit the bill.

The app’s features are extensive. When editing an image, it’s possible to rotate, crop, paint, bucket fill, and remove redeye. And each of the editing features has a subset of capabilities. Other options let you adjust brightness, contrast, and color levels, as well as add filters. The app stores the original version of an image, so you can easily back up in the editing process and retrieve it. Once editing is complete, the only sharing option available is email. But, it’s not too difficult to email yourself the image and then post to social networks from there.

Keeping up

Information is everywhere: coming at you on your iPhone, iPad, or Android device, via Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds on blogs, and in newspapers. How can you possibly keep up? There are, of course, apps for that.

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Creating a Personal, Customized Magazine with FlipBoard, Pulse, Zite, and Show You

Customizable news and information aggregators, or personal magazine apps, allow users to create their own current events journal, drawing from a variety of sources. Stories or posts are updated regularly and appear via the app in a highly visual display. FlipBoard, Pulse, and Zite each offer a slightly different take on the personalized magazine app. (FlipBoard and Zite require an iPad running iOS 3.2 or later, Pulse is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.)

When FlipBoard launched, it was the app that demonstrated what the iPad could do in the area of aggregated content. The software is known for its high quality visual interface and use of the iPad’s touch features. The FlipBoard experience varies, as users decide which of their social networks, blogs, and websites FlipBoard will follow. If I want to display my Facebook or Twitter feeds, I can set it to do that. If I want to see Mashable or School Library Journal on Flipboard, I can add those feeds, too.

SLJ1109w_APPS_Pulse(Original Import)Once the feeds are set up, the visual experience begins. Select one of the feeds and that content is displayed in a grid across the screen. Swipe to go from page to page. When a specific article or post is selected, it’s possible to read its entire contents as well as tweet the information or see who else has tweeted it. You can also add a photo to a tweet that’s sent via FlipBoard.

Pulse also offers a visual display for the content it aggregates, but it’s more like a traditional RSS reader compared to FlipBoard. As with FlipBoard, Pulse lets users to select news feeds to follow and then shows the most current content. With Pulse, it’s all about the news—you can’t add your own Twitter or Facebook stream, but it’s possible to post information from the news to those social sites. You can also favorite something that you read in Pulse and access it from inside the app or from a Web address associated with your .me items. (.me is the name that Pulse has given to its favoriting feature.)

One of the biggest distinctions between the two applications? FlipBoard includes the items in the stream that it thinks you’ll find the most relevant. It determines this by the people you follow on social networks and what’s most popular among your social network friends. Pulse, on the other hand, simply displays content from the news sites you subscribe to via the app.

Zite takes the idea of FlipBoard and Pulse one step further by allowing you to subscribe to categories of information. For example, if I subscribe to the technology, education, social media, and digital categories, Zite will push out content that the app thinks I’ll find interesting. It knows my interests based on information I provide. For example, I can “like” an article by giving it a thumbs-up, or I can tell the app to give me more articles on a particular topic of interest. The app revises my feed to give me content based on what I’ve entered into its recommendation database. With Zite, the articles in my stream aren’t necessarily those posted by friends, or everything from a specific news source. In many cases, it’s content I don’t see anywhere else. And that’s a good thing.

SLJ1109w_APPS_Zite(Original Import)Many of the personal magazine apps have a feature that allows for saving to what’s called a “read later service.” For example, if I find an article in Zite that I don’t have time to read right away, I can click on its Instapaper link and save the article to that service and save it for a later time. When I’m ready, I open the Instapaper app and download the article. With Instapaper, if there are articles that I’d like to keep on hand, I also can set up folders for that purpose.

Each of the personalized magazine apps has added features and refinements. It’s a good sign that they continue to innovate as a way to meet the needs of users. And, since competition is hot for the title of best app in this category, it’s likely that these products will continue to improve.

It’s not just text that can be aggregated via these apps. The ShowYou app makes it possible to collect video from the Web in one place by scanning your social networks and aggregating the videos that your friends there post. It also makes available videos that ShowYou uncovers in its own scan of the web.

Being Productive

Collaborating with colleagues using different devices and from different locations can sometimes be a challenge. Have no fear, these apps can help ease the way.

Accessing and Working with Files via Dropbox and GoodReader

SLJ1109w_APPS_Dropbox(Original Import)Anyone who works on a desktop or laptop computer, smartphone, or tablet, knows that it can sometimes be frustrating to be in one place with one technology and not have access to the file on another. Of course, you could use a flash drive. But why when there’s Dropbox?

The cloud-based storage system, makes it possible to access your files from anywhere on a range of devices. I can be working on an article on my laptop and need to leave to go to an appointment. But I want to continue working on that file, so I upload the file to Dropbox (compatible with iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Windows devices). Then, while I’m en route, I open up the application on my iPad, navigate to the file, open it, and get back to work. Once the file is opened in DropBox you can export it to another program. For example, I can open a Dropbox file on my iPad that was created using Word and export it from Dropbox to Pages, the Apple writing application that I use on my device.

One drawback is that you can’t move files back into the cloud from the program you’re using on a device. However, there are ways around that. For example, if I work on the file in Pages, I could transfer it to other devices via email. Or, I can use the GoodReader app that automatically syncs files to and from Dropbox.

SLJ1109w_APPS_GoodRdr(Original Import)At first glance, GoodReader (requires iOS 3.0 or later; $4.99) might not look like anything special. It’s an app that enables you to open files in a variety of formats—from docs, to PDFs, to images—in order to view them on an iPad or iPhone. But that’s not all. As mentioned previously, I can sync files that I have in GoodReader to my DropBox account so that those files are always up to date. But what’s particularly useful is that I can add notes to a PDF file. So while getting ready for a meeting with a stack of PDFs that’ll be discussed, I can put those documents on my iPad, and use GoodReader to make notations on that device. Then all I need to take to the meeting is my iPad loaded with those documents.

GoodReader can also connect to a Google account, which allows for accessing attachments on emails as well as files available in Google Docs. GoodReader ultimately makes it possible to work fairly seamlessly with documents between devices and from a variety of locations.

Linda W. Braun About Linda W. Braun

Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com) is an educational technology consultant and a past president of YALSA.

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